High Visibility — part one

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Here's the first part of a psychological suspense novel I wrote a couple of years ago. I'm writing different things these days, but since 'griplit' is a popular genre, I thought people might enjoy it. Rereading it, it's still 'me' — its settings and themes are still in my work.

1


I’ve finally decided to put the murder in. It feels like the right decision, and not just because I can imagine the complaints.
‘You can’t leave it out. It’s the best bit.’
‘It’s the only bit worth reading.’
I’m writing this for myself, although I will make it available to anyone who wants to read it. I might think of my friend Daniel as I write. I can imagine him trying to be kind by saying that it doesn’t need to be written. What happened last year is over and, while we’re not exactly unscathed, we need to get on with our lives.
Daniel will be more familiar than most people with what he reads, but there will be surprises. He might be a little taken aback to be reminded of how I resisted him. Then again, didn’t he say he admired my independence? He respected the fact that we waited while others scrabbled into the ‘limited window of opportunity’. That was the expression he actually used. If Daniel pays attention to everything he’ll see why moving on isn’t yet possible for me.
For while, I considered writing only about the murder. If I took out everything that paled into insignificance beside it, there’d be nothing left. So be it, people might say. But the murder can’t stand on its own as if it came from nowhere. Nobody really thought that it had, of course. The police certainly didn’t and while I’m sure they spent less time talking to me than to the others, there was no doubt they were prepared to cast their net wide to create as big as picture as they needed. In the event, they didn’t need a large canvas at all. To them it seemed cut and dried. The law is the law.
Nothing seems cut and dried to me. I gave the investigating officers as little information as possible, and no theories whatsoever. I didn’t know enough to say any more. And yet, I knew plenty. Enough for anyone to contend with, for sure. Everyone else seemed to work on a need-to-know basis. You could say that all we needed know was that someone had died and another had been punished for it. Who wanted more than that?
I do, even now. The murder completes my story but it isn’t the whole story. And yet I know that people will accuse me of skewing the details just to fit myself in. They would say that having been abandoned by most of my friends and failing to find new ones, and failing, also, at being a proper family member, I have to force together all these disparate threads into one big tangle with me at the attention-seeking centre. I’ve never wanted to be centre stage of anything. And I would never set out to scare myself or, for that matter, anyone else. From choice, I try to blend in and seek obscurity. But if something looks suspicious I pursue its ins and outs till it seems totally benign.
Tom would be the first person to defend me against any charge of stirring. He knows best that I do the opposite of ruffling feathers, but then he never saw me investigate anything. Perhaps that’s why our relationship had such limitations, although it lasted long enough. Even now, the idea that Tom is no longer my boyfriend surprises me. I don’t feel entitled to speak of him and not just because of Daniel.
Some people might say I’ve got a cheek to mention Tom and Daniel in the same sentence. Or that I should have talked about Tom first. He used the word ‘opportunity’ first, that’s for sure. You could say that Tom saved my life, if that doesn’t sound like an exaggeration. Or like a blatant attempt to put myself in pole position. I wasn’t the intended victim, though I could have been. So maybe Tom sent another woman to her death instead of me. He had always been my rock, my protector, after all. Would he have gone as far as sacrificing someone else in my place? I don’t know.
One thing I’m sure of is that it’s too late to regret losing Tom. Why didn’t I just get over my hump and call him when it mattered? On the other hand, why didn’t he tell me that he loved me? Too late, he seemed to shove years’ worth of sentiment into sixty seconds. But he’d left out the most important words of all. Or is that just wishful thinking on my part? It isn’t like Tom to step so drastically out of character. Maybe he’d had no intention of speaking aloud what had never needed saying before.
I’m the one who should have acted. That’s typical of me, I’ve concluded. For all my vigilance I didn’t get everything right. I missed clues. I overlooked motivations. I’m writing to find out how and why I went wrong, but I think I already know my biggest mistake. Didn’t I let Daniel – whom I barely knew – get away with things for which Tom would never been forgiven?
‘Why are you still banging on as if you and Daniel had such a special affinity?’
‘He was way out of your league, Sam.’
‘Did you really think you stood a chance?’
‘Crazy.’
‘Deluded.’
I’m pretty sure that Daniel wouldn’t agree with those accusations. After all, he’d had to convince me of what we had in common. He had to plead for my help. But while I was cautious, at first, I don’t think I was ever suspicious. I knew he had a girlfriend and I knew about the other women in his life. I wasn’t desperate enough, after losing Tom, to join a queue. I didn’t need to hear Daniel say he loved me. I wonder, too, if I trusted him because I knew that our friendship wouldn’t amount to anything special. He wouldn’t benefit from it, let alone make gains to my disadvantage. I wouldn’t have thought to offer him my approval because I had no concept of its value.
‘Sam, maybe that’s just as well.’
Those voices belong to the girls I went to school with, though I haven’t seen them for a dozen years. They won’t know about what happened last autumn. At least, if they read the papers they won’t associate any of it with me. So why am I letting them get in the way? I suppose it’s because there is nobody else.
My family haven’t gone anywhere, but I haven’t seen Mum and Dad in nearly two months. Not that I need their help. Besides, my parents’ behaviour has taught me that no matter how thorough you are, some investigations are impossible to conclude. You can’t know everything. For instance, I won’t ever know if they are private, or just secretive. I don’t think that has anything to do with last year. It’s one of life’s deceptions that you get to be grown-up up like your parents, but that doesn’t mean you get to understand them as adults.
Where Jo is concerned, I can see that building up to the murder will give my story the conclusion I deserve. For all that my sister claims otherwise, it had nothing to do with her. In fact, if I’d known that Jo would blame herself, I would never have told her any of what happened. No doubt, it wouldn’t have taken long before she learned the facts, once people started talking again. But no matter how hard she tried, or whoever helped her, she wouldn’t have been able to put herself in the middle – which is a state of affairs that Jo just was not used to.
I don’t really mind that Jo has butted in quite so early. Maybe I never really thought that I could keep the murder from these pages. But I’d have been a fool to try to kid myself that I could leave my sister out.
Even if she’d been there, I doubt we’d have been able to talk about and share our thoughts. It isn’t something we ever did, because we lived in the shadow of our parents’ constant arguing. Jo and I were never made to feel that we were to blame, but Mum and Dad didn’t protect us. They rowed as if we were invisible. Jo got as upset as I did, and to this day, she loathes confrontation. She’s done loads of courses at work on its management and avoidance. Being the older sister, I tried to shield her, and in doing so perhaps I silenced us both.
Sometimes, I tried to distract her, which didn’t work so well. If the mood seemed especially fragile, I cautioned her. Then Mum would cry, ‘Sam, don’t antagonize your sister! I won’t have any arguments!’ Mum never saw the irony in that remark and, since it was Jo’s policy not to rise to the bait, she never set Mum straight. In fact, Jo got the reputation as the peacemaker. She had her own brand of distraction: ‘I hope no one’s going to spoil a lovely day!’ And, because she was Jo, she’d strike exactly the right tone to make the tension dissolve and for us all to laugh.
Despite the confidence with which she greeted the world, I couldn’t help but worry that Jo might be too confident, too enthusiastic. She might take on so much that she’d burn herself out, and spread herself so thinly that she was open to unfair criticism. The more visible she became the more I worried that something would happen to her. But I swear it never occurred to me that she would disappear.
It was just so unlikely. My little sister knew too many people to be able to hide successfully, and if someone tried to lure her away then another, or lots of others probably, would foil the plans at once. Jo had no secrets. Her life was incredibly well-documented, truly an open book. I knew she wrote diaries, although I’d never scanned their contents. She had a massive Filofax, which I’d bought from Ryman’s for her eighteenth birthday, and which she still used despite being equipped with a BlackBerry from work, and she kept each year’s used calendar pages. Jo never threw anything away. Her archives were complete.
Our family home is filled with photographs, offering additional documentation. Then there are the piles of albums stored in the cupboard in the front room, near the door, for ease of rescue in case of fire. The reverse of each picture bears a careful, detailed description in Mum’s squarish capitals. The photos feature Jo at every age, in a multitude of locations. They show her friends: the loyal girlfriends, the trusted male friends, the boyfriends, and the mates of either sex. Mum’s annotation extends to the meticulously inscribed calendar that hangs from the slats of the pantry door. All its ancestors are stored on the bottom shelf under the tablecloths. Another invaluable store of information.
For anyone without access to the Steadman family archives there was the website of Hegarty Lowe. Jo had worked there for five years, since completing her Masters degree. The home page fed a link to ‘Recruitment’, which showed profiles of real-life employees, offering personal statistics with details of the highs and lows of their careers in international property management. Jo’s photograph had her dark hair in a ponytail, whereas she’d had it shortened (and lightened) since, but it was still Jo. From another screen you could have worked out her e-mail address, and the company’s postal address and switchboard numbers were listed. There was MySpace and Facebook and Twitter, which I don’t bother with, but all of them were and remain easy ways to find Jo.
The point is, anyone could have tracked her down, from acquaintances to perfect strangers. You couldn’t have lost her, surely. Yet that’s exactly what I thought would happen. And although I’m not boasting, I was proven right. It definitely belongs in my story.
I’m really not looking for triumph from this account. And if I do want some kind of endorsement I’ve always known better than to look towards Jo. Her success never made me feel slighted, exactly. But I admit, sometimes I felt encroached upon, as if my life was governed by rules made elsewhere, running crossways to the path I’d chosen.
Sometimes, though, I wonder if I could have built a new life whether Jo had remained in England or disappeared completely. I could have painted a kinder, sweeter portrait of my family without the need for comparisons with another. I could have squeezed Tom out and pulled in someone else.
If I have reason to be jealous of anyone, it’s Tom. People might say that by distancing myself from my family I got what I wanted. But it wasn’t as if I found a new family to replace them. The murder put paid to that. Then again, despite the murder, it’s Tom’s big achievement. He’s turned the old saying on its head – he’s proven that you can choose your family, after all. Good for him. And to think, at first, I pitied him. I thought he was the one who needed protecting from the truth. Something else I got badly wrong.
But what’s the point in regretting everything all over again? I’ve got to try to move on.
*
I don’t remember much about our paternal grandparents, who died when I was five and Jo still a toddler, but their wills made provision for us both to attend a rather posh public school from the age of twelve. Meade Park, the one Mum and Dad decided on, meant at least two hours’ travel each day. From then on, our lives no longer seemed rooted in and around NW2. Dad joked that we only turned up for meals. And to get our washing done, Mum added. But I knew they were pleased that we were able to go to such a good school which we’d never have been able to afford on our own.
For the first fortnight, Mum chummed me on the Metropolitan line as far as Harrow-on-the-Hill. By the end of spring term, with longer, lighter days I was trusted to travel alone. Mum said I could sit with the other day pupils, but I quickly decided the tube gang wasn’t company I wanted to keep. So I’d sit alone in another carriage. It felt a bit like hiding, because of the rows of high-backed seats you only see on the purple line trains. It’s like a private world. I’d do my English prep or immerse myself in novels. It’s amazing how many passengers made that long journey each day with nothing to listen to or read.
It was above ground all the way, and I felt safe. Also, it was years after the King’s Cross fire but before the July bombings, and a long way from the terrorist attacks on Docklands. Not that I’d ever feared the tube. Every holiday Mum would take us into Covent Garden to the bead shop and along Oxford Street to Selfridge’s.
As for the school itself, I liked it well enough. I got on OK with my classmates. At weekends it was easy to excuse myself from their plans. We lived far enough away to create the illusion of our own unique, demanding schedule.
I didn’t feel pressure to have established myself by the time Jo arrived. Nor did I long for people to accost Jo with the – frankly unlikely – burden of ‘So you’re Samantha Steadman’s sister!’ as if it were an honour. But it was a strange period, filled with the kind of expectation that leads, inevitably, to a sense of inadequacy. My enthusiasm would never match Jo’s. She asked me so many questions and tagged along whenever possible, especially from the start of her last year of primary school; my last year as having Meade Park as my own. She’d even managed to acquire friends before she started.
When Jo eventually got there, she was ecstatic, dazzled by the choice of co-curricular activities on offer. She claimed to envy me starting first. But already the ground beneath us had begun to shift in her favour. The only word to describe what happened when she was eleven and I was thirteen is she blossomed. It’s a word you hear quite often but it could have been invented for Jo. She went from average-looks and height to being tall and beautiful. She changed her glasses and before long moved on to contact lenses.
But I wasn’t looking for excitement when, in the cold, dull weeks after my second Christmas at my new school I found myself followed home. Followed – that was how I saw it. Watched. Not in a creepy way, at least I didn’t think so.
Every afternoon, we’d walk from school through the underpass at the roundabout and down the High Street. The shops must be different now, I’ll bet there are more of them, but there were enough to lurk in, if someone wanted to surreptitiously wait. Or he could have been skulking in the side streets.
Uxbridge is a large station at the end of the line. You’d notice someone waiting for you. Travelling at the same time each day you’d recognize regular passengers. But I never saw him there and nor, so far as I knew, did anyone else. Some of my former friends divided their time between the bus station – where the lads from the boys’ school loitered – and the train station because there’s no point standing on the platform if the train isn’t there. He might have got on after Uxbridge. He’d always be gone by the time we hit the outskirts of London, that’s for sure.
His presence was a comfort on that desolate journey through the no-man’s-land between the suburbs and the villages. He never got into my carriage, never seemed intent on finding me, and it was his being off but near the train I noticed most often. In a way, I felt more closely guarded than if he’d come and sat in the seat behind me. He had this funny half smile, which I liked, that seemed sort of vague but earnest. I was certain it became more confident when he clocked me. He was shy, I decided.
Is that why I didn’t try to confront him? Partly, but also part of me was reluctant to change the relationship – if you could call it that – which we forged over that six-or-so-month period. I didn’t want to know what anybody else thought, either. Since I was already in the habit of keeping to myself I decided there was little risk of that.
I don’t people watch as a hobby, but I’m careful. I watched the stations so I could track his movements. I scanned the Metropolitan line for opportunities to alight undetected, or melt into the crowd, untraceable. At Rayners Lane and Harrow-on-the Hill multiple platforms fed into different lines. The two Ruislip stations weren’t so congested, but once on the high street you could dive into shops under the pretence of shopping. Preston Road and Northwick Park had only thin, narrow platforms and just one way out onto a residential street. You’d look suspicious wandering past the house without ever going inside one.
‘I thought you lived in Cricklewood.’ The harsh voice was familiar but it was months since she’d spoken to me.
I said I did, guardedly. Why were my classmates suddenly interested in me?
‘Then how come you got off at Harrow last Thursday and Wembley Park the week before? I saw you, and so did Marcia.’
‘And who decided you were too special to sit with us?’
I don’t know why I answered. I wasn’t boasting. ‘I thought I saw someone,’ I said. ‘Watching me.’
Who’d want to follow you? their looks said. ‘Who was that then?’
‘Some guy. There was this man ...’
‘Which man?’ As if every passenger on the London Underground was known to them. ‘Are you being followed by dirty old men, Samantha?’
I denied it, without wanting to give anything else away.
‘Why didn’t you report it?’
‘Oh, I get it.’ How triumphant she sounded. ‘You like it, don’t you. You actually get off on it.’
The others joined in. ‘Think he fancies you!’
‘You!’
‘Sam has a stalker; Sam loves her stalker ...’
‘Crazy.’
Then he vanished. Usually, I’d have seen him twice a week, not always on the same days. There were no hard and fast rules. After a week, I’d had to conclude that he’d heard their cajoling and retreated, wounded.
It angered me. How dare they interfere when they had their choice of all the dozens of lads at the bus stop from other schools not to mention the boys in our year? But I was worried too. Had something happened to him? And then: if he had been protecting me by his quiet surveillance, was I now at risk? If I was, it was their fault. Nothing that he had done, and certainly not any scheme of mine.
Then, one afternoon, about three weeks later, I looked out the window when the train stopped at Harrow-on-the-Hill, and I saw him press close to the glass, walking back towards the station. I leaped from my seat, startling the old lady knitting beside me, but I was shaken too. It was a warm day but sweat cooled me to the point where I felt so cold I shivered. I got out of the carriage and quickly walked along platform 5 through the crush of people, so many of them that I didn’t feel conspicuous.
Up the steps and through the barrier where I was faced with two choices. The first was to turn right, towards the bus station. It was the more popular path, so wouldn’t it be safer? But all too soon I was outside looking at St Anne’s and my instinct told me the trail was cold. Only seconds had passed, so, thinking rapidly, agitated still, I sped back up the steps and took the other exit which was quieter but much darker. Lights were on in the cage of the car park, but surely he wouldn’t have wanted me to follow him in there?
Beyond I saw the string of headlights snaking its way up the hill. The pale colours of twilight melted into the swoop of the park up beyond and over the road. There were people coming towards me but no one behind. I checked. Could he somehow be gesturing exclusively to me, if only I could make out his shape amongst the indistinct specks in the distance? I’d never followed him beyond the safety of a station before. I felt foolish on top of my sense of failure I almost wished that my fellow students were watching. There would be comfort in seeing familiar faces. In the end, I bought a fresh ticket and returned to the southbound platform where I had a dismal, eight-minute wait for the next train to Finchley Road.
Word had got around about my so-called stalker, even as far as my teachers, and Mum and Dad. I’m not saying my parents weren’t concerned, but I’m sure that if it had happened to Jo more fuss would have been made. Not long after that we had exams, which disrupted our timetable, and then the term, and the school year, ended. How did I know that he wouldn’t be there after our summer break? I didn’t really believe that he’d been scared out of his routine by the jeering of a gang of fourteen-year-old girls.
I’m not a fantasist, but in the holidays I wondered what had happened to him. And, also, who was he? Where did he live? Was he going out or returning home? What did he do? He carried nothing but then not everyone lugs bags around, just as they don’t have books and iPods. Did his wintry uniform, still worn into June and July, inhibit him from summer travel? Unlikely, I guessed, because it was only the look common to so many Londoners: a long black coat and, when cold, a dark-coloured beanie. I’m sure I saw a blondish fringe below it. I tried out names in my head, but none of them seemed right; nothing popular, or even the unusual names that I’d seen in the paper or in books.
The most likely explanation for his non-appearance, and his loss of interest in me, was that when the new academic year began, Jo began accompanying me to school. Although I’m not suggesting that Jo had scared him off. Besides, her enrolment at Meade Park wasn’t a total disaster, because Abby Morgan started in my year, and chose me for her best friend. After that I was immune to the disapproval of others. Even when Abby had gone I still had Tom. Who’d dare to cross someone with a boyfriend who was five years older – grown-up – and a big, hulking man at that?


2


Often, if my boss Michael is out, I work in his office, for the quiet and the space. I’ve stayed late a couple of times to get this far and yesterday, while waiting for an engineer to come back to finish a job he was supposed to have completed two days previously, I found I couldn’t concentrate on any of my tasks. So I went into Michael’s and opened up a new Word document and started the bit of my story about Abby and Tom.
But first I had to describe something that happened when I was ten years old, at primary school still, before Meade Park. It was a warm evening at the end of September, just a couple of weeks into the new academic year. Jo was already home, but rarely for me I’d stayed late at school; our old school.
*
Mum was doing a fitting for a bride. She was in the area so she offered to pick me up. It wouldn’t take long, so I could stay in the car. But the bride-to-be’s own mother ushered me into the house, saying it was far too hot to sit in a car, even for a short time. I didn’t mind what I did, as long as it didn’t stress Mum. She seemed fine about it.
The woman made us drinks and fussed a bit, and then became absorbed in the fitting. I slipped out through the conservatory doors into the long but narrow back garden. I remember it was filled on both sides with massive rose bushes, tall as the fence, and they swayed across the neat clipped lawn. Down the other end of the garden was a shed. I decided to walk towards it across generously spaced paving stones.
There was a light on at the back of the house directly opposite. A similar sort of house but without a conservatory, so I was looking through a lot of very tall trees into the kitchen. I wasn’t being especially nosey but it was the only house in the row that was illuminated. I could see the dresser on the far wall and even make a guess at the sorts of details that might be on the plates it displayed.
Then a man and a woman, around my parents’ age or slightly older, entered the room, arguing. I leaped at the suddenness and vehemence of it. I stumbled off the paving stone, onto dry grass. Had I made a noise? Had they seen me watching? I considered dashing inside, but I was transfixed.
I thought I knew all about arguing couples, but this was different. At once I saw it was true anger, and violent. The couple started tussling. The man shook the woman who was beating him around the face; then his hands suddenly let go of her shoulders and clamped upwards around her throat. He was throttling her. For a horrible long minute there was the choking in of breath and the gurgling out of sobs. Perhaps I was too far away so knew those sounds only from watching TV, but I definitely noticed when there genuinely was no sound at all. Her body slackened, and slumped. The man let go and she fell from view. He vanished. The lights blinked off.
Mum emerged through the french windows behind me, her voice slightly raised now. ‘Samantha, didn’t you hear me calling? We’re done, love. It’s time to go.’ And we went.
He’d killed her. It was all I could think of on the journey home.
By next morning, my grasp on it was slipping. But ten-year-olds don’t think they’re going mad the way adults do, and I was sure of what I’d seen. I just hoped, by then, the police would be onto it, and it was no longer my concern. Someone else in the house might have raised the alarm. A neighbour. The woman’s employer. Someone would notice her missing. Maybe the man himself would confess. In due course, there would be a funeral. In those days I paid no attention to the news but I listened and watched. I thought there would be headlines in the local paper but there was nothing.
From TV shows, I knew that I ought to have said something. But I couldn’t even tell Mum. I’d never tested my parents’ faith in me. Mum and Dad riled each other all the time so Jo and I did our best to avert other dramas. I think I was more worried about incurring her anger than the police’s if it turned out I’d made a big mistake.
But I truly believed that the killer would track me down to make sure I kept my silence. Although, the only action I took was to get out the A-Z and work out exactly where the house was so that no journey I would ever make went anywhere near the scene of the crime. Then I decided to retreat even more. Keeping a low profile seemed a good idea.
It’s not easy being invisible. People might think it takes nothing more than being still, not daring to move or even risk the disturbance an extra-loud sigh or intake of breath might cause. But I know that the opposite is true, that it is both time-consuming and exhausting. No one makes allowances. You make sacrifices that other, carefree (or careless) people would not understand. You withdraw, and all people think you’ve done is hide, evasive and effortless, which lets them carry on in their own sweet way.
*
Seven months before she vanished, she met Tom Mackie, inauspiciously, in the WH Smith at Brent Cross Shopping Centre. They were both choosing birthday cards: Tom for his great-aunt Ruth and Abby for her little sister Shona.
‘He was having trouble,’ Abby explained. ‘He looked so serious, like he was studying some complicated manual. I started giggling because he was so funny. Then he got all self-conscious, and swore, and he walked away. I felt so bad afterwards that I went after him.’
‘You went after him?’ I was excited, and amazed. I hadn’t given much thought to boys at that stage. There was nobody I really fancied, no singer, or movie star, or boy at school. Until Jo started dating, I’d decided not to worry about it. ‘Go, girl!’
We laughed. ‘That’s so unlike me, as you know,’ she said. ‘He was just ... so sweet. I liked him.’
‘But he’s so much older than us!’
She nodded. ‘I know. It’s weird, really. Sometimes, he comes across as being amazingly shy. And other times, he seems even more mature than eighteen. Guess he’s had to learn to fend for himself since a bit his mum died. There’s been only him and his dad for ages, and Eric’s not there a lot of the time. Well, he has to work. I don’t think Tom minds, because they’re quite alike, really.’ She smiled again, such a tender expression. I felt like I was intruding. Then I asked what she wanted from Tom, what she had in mind.
‘Friendship, I guess.’ She sounded doubtful. ‘With a boy, though not as a mate, I guess, if I’m honest. So what’s the next stage – before sex? There’s got to be one, right?’
I hadn’t known what to say. I’d wanted to put questions to Abby, not the other way round, like asking if I was doing something wrong in regard to my feelings about boys. But it was too embarrassing, now that she had Tom. Abby tried not to let me feel left out but it would have been impossible for us to go round as a threesome – even if I hadn’t discovered who Tom really was.
When we were together, she’d deliberately not mention him, but after awhile that proved impossible and one Sunday afternoon she seemed especially restless. We were leafing through magazines at my place. It was too wet to browse in the charity shops on West End Lane, which we much preferred to Brent Cross. We’d already concluded we’d seen all the current movies that interested us.
Suddenly, Abby tossed her magazine aside and said, ‘Come and meet Tom.’
Stupidly I said, ‘The Tom?’
‘Of course,’ she said, smiling. Then she looked anxious. ‘But don’t call him that, will you, Sam? And don’t say anything like “I’ve heard so much about you” because he’d freak.’
‘Why? Not that you have told me much about him. You’ve been seeing him for six weeks!’ I hope I didn’t sound too snippy, because I still had the feeling of being a spare part, as if I’d come between Abby and Tom, instead of him coming between us. That’s why I hadn’t angled for an invitation to meet him before. In the end, I put my reservations to one side and said, ‘Great. Let’s go,’ I said. ‘Is it far?’
‘We can walk it from here.’
Probably, Abby had been dropping in to see Tom on the way to or from seeing me. Did she cut her visits short? I wasn’t offended. So far, Tom’s appearance had put no strain on our friendship, which had been pretty well exclusive. Like me, Abby wasn’t really a party- or a group-person. Tom probably wasn’t either, I considered. Still I had a flash of concern that he mightn’t like me. Why didn’t I ever consider that I mightn’t like him? I wasn’t even sure if Abby was seeking my approval. In those days, I just wasn’t questioning enough about other people.
‘Here we are,’ Abby said as casually as she’d made the invitation to visit Tom in the first place.
‘You sure he won’t mind?’ I said. ‘You can drop in whenever you want and – bring a friend?’
‘He’ll be in. Sunday afternoons he and Eric – that’s his dad – are always in. Relax, it’ll be fine.’
We knocked on the door and Tom answered and gave Abby a hug. He was huge, that was the first thing that struck me. Maybe I looked taken aback because he regarded me warily. But then he cheerfully said, ‘Great to meet you, Sam. Come through.’
He led the way into the living room. We hung back, and I realized Abby permitted the distance so we could exchange a private word. Excitedly, I offered my assessment: ‘He’s lovely,’ I said, because I wanted to be encouraging. I wanted to be happy for Abby. Maybe I thought if it were possible for her to find her match then I would too. In the spirit of friendship, she might even help me. Did I stop to wonder if I fancied Tom? I’m not sure. What happened next scrambled all my thoughts and my memory of the day.
We entered the kitchen which was quite bright and warm on this grey, wintry afternoon. Outside seemed so dull; the tall, dark trees blocking out the light. Through the foliage, I saw a dark, uninhabited conservatory in the house over the fence. Then I turned back. I glanced at the dresser, well-stocked with decorative plates. A vision from the past, sudden and chilling. This was the house. I saw the man sitting at the kitchen table, who looked up and smiled. It was the man, the murderer.
‘Hello there, Abby. And who’s this?’ A friendly voice, if a little gruff.
Abby gave the man a quick peck on the cheek. ‘Eric, hi, this is my best friend Sam. We’re just stopping by to say hello. I thought it was time for introductions.’
We’ve already met, I thought faintly.
‘Sam? Aren’t you going to say anything?’ Abby snapped, hands on hips. ‘Er, hello, earth to Sam?’
‘Sorry.’ Colour flooded my cheeks. ‘Hi. Really nice to meet you. So ... what shall we do? How about we head out for coffee? Yes! I’m gasping. Come on, let’s go.
I knew it was out of order, making plans for other people in their own home, but I couldn’t spend a moment more in that kitchen. It can’t be true, I told myself. I suppose I didn’t really believe in coincidences and certainly couldn’t have imagined one as hideous as this.
*
Abby and I bundled into coats while Tom dashed upstairs to change into jeans. We were alone with his father but only a few moments, which Abby filled with innocent small talk. I needed no confirmation but I made mental notes. It was him and this was the house.
At the end of the street, I checked the name of the road. The details of that blacklisted page of the A-Z had remained seared on my brain. A street away was where the bride and her mother had lived: Abby and I had entered the road from the other end to the one Mum had driven down. We walked to the park, did a couple of circuits and then went to a café. Whatever we discussed it certainly wasn’t murder, but my edginess, which I fought desperately to shut out as much as the cold, stopped me from taking notice.
At last, at dusk, which was our curfew on Sundays, Abby and I were alone, and headed towards the bus stop.
‘Nice house they’ve got,’ I remarked casually. ‘Have Tom and his dad been there long?’
‘Absolutely, and they’ll never move. Could you imagine the effort that would take? They keep the living room reasonably neat but as for the other rooms, Sam – well, clutter doesn’t even come close. They’ve got every book ever published about taxis all over the world. Eric’s a cabbie – think I might have mentioned that – and Tom’s going to train for the Knowledge.’
‘Wow,’ I said, pleased to be thinking of something other than a long ago murder. ‘Will he be your personal chauffeur?’
‘It’s a thought, isn’t it?’ She grinned. ‘They’re hoarders, both of them. Real sticklers for facts and figures and details. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s an anorak gene in there somewhere.’
‘You’ll have to watch that, Ab.’
‘Don’t worry. I’m on the case.’
I paused, considering what I had to ask next. ‘Tom’s mother died, you said … How long ago was that?’
‘Six or seven years, I guess. When Tom was thirteen. That’s another reason for not moving, I think. Memories.’
‘How did she die?’
Abby frowned slightly. ‘Car accident. Died instantly. Tom never got the chance to say goodbye. He came home from school and there was Eric, breaking the news.’
It had been a lie, but sounded like the kind of improbable truth you instantly believe because it’s outside your own experience. I said, ‘He waited till Tom got home from school? She would have been taken to hospital— His dad would have been at the hospital and he’d have rung the school and Tom would have been taken out of class and—’
‘Jesus, Sam! I’m telling you what happened, not working out storylines for Casualty. Anyway, what does it matter? It’s horrible, you wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy.’
‘No, of course not. Sorry.’
Abby beamed. ‘Your turn, next. Hey, why not nip into Smith’s after school tomorrow. You never know – it might be your lucky day.’
Neither of us could have guessed that ‘my turn’ would mean looking after Tom, and a version of that relationship lasting for ten years or more. I just smiled. Abby’s bus came along, and we said goodbye.
*
I sustained my silence for another five months, because I didn’t want to upset Abby. Not that I had much of a chance to do that. Abby and Tom spent more and more time together: so much so that an afternoon I had planned with Abby, just the two of us, seemed like an exceptional treat. But still our friendship did not suffer and I grew to like Tom even more. In fact he helped me find my vocation.
Before GCSEs we’d all had to do work experience. Unlike Jo, I lacked the flair for anything creative like dance and music. So I’d spent a dreary couple of weeks with a market research company. I was good at maths and so thought of being an analyst or statistician. But the work bored me. Then we had a careers day at school and an architect spoke and I thought that sounded interesting. I hadn’t realized architects could specialise in so many different things. I mentioned this to Abby – to Tom and Abby – and he said his great-aunt knew an architect through an old family friend. Tom asked his aunt to ask Michael to organize an unofficial placement for me, which he did. That was my introduction to Michael Coady Associates, the architects practice based on Davies Street in Mayfair.
The first time I saw Michael I went hot and cold, but then the cold went away and only warmth rushed through from head to toe. He was the best-looking man I’d ever seen. If ever someone wanted to call me deluded then in this they had their reason. I know that falling for your boss sounds like a pathetic cliché, a trap so easily avoided, but then my knowledge of relationships was scant: Abby and Tom had met in a newsagent’s, and my parents’ background was similarly effortless. What made it truly ludicrous was the fact that Michael was thirty, and gay, having lived with his boyfriend whom he loved for ten years.
But I hadn’t known about Patrick until my second week of work experience. We don’t have a designated reception area, so once people introduced themselves they’d sit near my desk and I’d offer to hang up their coats and fetch drinks. One day, Patrick came in, walked straight past me – offering a dismissive sort of smile – and went into Michael’s office, even though Michael was on the phone. Then they kissed and started laughing. No one paid any attention, except me. I’d seen men kiss before, but this was a snub. Only later did Tom explain the connection. Ruth had been employed by Patrick’s parents as a nanny when his sister was born. She’d known Patrick since he was three years old.
It seemed that everyone was in the know except me, that I was being deliberately excluded. So when I made my discovery about Abby and Tom soon after – and similarly by accident – I suppose I cracked. This time, there were just too many secrets. It wasn’t fair of people to keep them. And it seemed equally unfair that people should be spared the truth to avoid getting hurt, when others suffered, as I felt I had. But feeling hurt, not to mention cut up about Michael’s unavailability, was no excuse for what I did.
*
We were at Abby’s house, late in the summer holidays. Perhaps she asked me to delve into her bag for a lipstick or some blusher. We shared everything; we borrowed clothes and make-up and looking into her bag seemed perfectly natural, until my fingers touched the clear plastic of an opened pack of condoms.
She saw the look on my face. She grinned. ‘Oh yes. I think I forgot to mention that. Things with me and Tom have stepped up a level.’
I’d understood from Abby there was no pressure from Tom to have sex which I was pleased about. Abby and I discussed it – she was a great magazine quiz participant. But we reached our own conclusions. We were sixteen, although we knew of girls who’d slept with boys in our year and above. We’d agreed we weren’t ready yet. The first time had to be special, with someone who would mean something to us long afterwards; we hoped.
It really shouldn’t have spoilt things. Only a mad person would let it do that. So why did I suspect that Abby had been secretive about Tom? Had she lied to me, letting me believe that sex was not part of their relationship? Or had I just missed clues? Did it matter? I decided that it did. I felt that she had betrayed me. But what I did was wilful, cruel and unforgivable. I told Abby about what I’d seen when I was ten.
Deluded. Crazy. I saw the taunting expressions of the other girls at school cross my best friend’s face. My only friend, really. I saw what I was about to lose. I’m not easily frightened, but my fear, at that moment, far exceeded my response to the murder itself.
Lovely Abby’s response was calm, although there was a strangled quality to her voice, as if it were choked with fear. She said, ‘God, Sam, what are we going to do?’
‘Do?’ At that moment, I thought she hadn’t believed me. ‘We can’t do anything. It’s too late, there’s no point ...’
‘Of course we have to do something! Poor Tom. I’d hate to have to tell him, but I couldn’t face him knowing he didn’t know.’
I knew I’d done a terrible thing but I had no idea if I was about to make things even worse. So I can’t explain why I spoke with such confidence. ‘But think how he’d feel. He and his dad, they’ve only got each other. If you took Eric away ...’
‘He’s got us, Sam. Don’t forget that.’ She was trying to reassure us both. ‘We need to look after him.’
Tom wouldn’t have Abby for very much longer. Could she have had any idea then that before it was time to go back to school, she would disappear? Maybe she was simply thinking she had to get away from me and, because I’d spoilt him for her, Tom?
All I knew for sure, and what burdened me for a very long while after, was that Abby must have acted on my information, and suffered. The reason she’d disappeared was entirely connected to what I told her. Maybe, she was punished instead of me. Punished for passing on what I’d seen.
But she didn’t tell Tom, I was sure of that. So, as if trying to make up for the terrible thing I’d done I accepted my fate as Abby had described it. Now that Abby was gone, Tom was my responsibility. I had to prevent other people from learning the truth and passing it on to him.
As for Abby’s disappearance, I had had no warning at all. Tom and I had both seen her on Friday afternoon. On Saturday, Mum, Dad and I went to see Jo perform in a concert at the Festival Hall. We had lunch in Chinatown, and got back to Cricklewood late afternoon. It was summer, light still, so I decided to go and see Abby. Just as I was getting ready there was a knock on the door. I was afraid when I saw Tom standing there so solemnly, though wasn’t I always when someone turned up at our home unannounced?
‘She’s gone, Sam,’ he said. ‘I went round to the house and it was all packed up. Completely empty.’
‘Tom, how can she have gone?’ I was trembling.
‘The neighbours said the bailiffs were about to move in, so the family scarpered. They said Abby’s dad was facing bankruptcy. He owed millions.’
It couldn’t be true. Abby would have said. And I saw in his face that Tom did not believe, either. We didn’t discuss it – we’d never had a conversation of our own – but we knew never to expect to see Abby again, or to hear from her. Most important of all, Tom seemed to know what I had privately decided. We were bound to one another.
My parents offered little comfort, and no further explanation, but then they hadn’t known the Morgans. They hadn’t seen what I’d seen.
*
I got the marks I needed to study architecture and Michael and the team held a little party to wish me luck the week before I went down to Plymouth. Tom came to that, but not Ruth; now retired, she spent a lot of her time travelling. I thought it would be good to get away from everyone. I felt guilty about leaving Tom, although I assured him I’d be back in the holidays.
The first three years of an architect’s study are the degree part. They draw on all kinds of disciplines: history and art history, philosophy, design principles and so on. It was all new and exciting, and gave me a valuable new confidence. Quickly I made friends, including, in my second year, a sort of boyfriend. He was so unlike Tom, and also the boys from school. He had an edge, which I saw only in private, when his guard was down. He took drugs, he was addicted to cocaine, and often so high when we went to bed he was wild and he hurt me, a couple of times he badly hurt me. He fascinated me. I knew that most people have different moods but this was the first time I’d seen what looked like different personalities. I kept promising myself that I’d leave but I was compelled to stay. Safe to say he put me off drugs and some kinds of sex, but he wasn’t the reason that I didn’t finish my degree.
I’d arranged to spend my year out working for Michael, and then planned to return to university for my two-year Diploma. It felt good to be focused at a time when Jo was always being told what a marvellous all-rounder she was and therefore unsure of which career path to follow herself. A lot of people had quit the course already. Their passion had waned, or they realized they lacked the aptitude. In some cases, their money ran out.
At the end of the year, a girl on my course was brutally raped, left for dead on a towpath near the Cleveland Bridge. I thought of my boyfriend. I’d shaken free of him completely, and yet I felt afraid, all over again. Vulnerable. Exposed. It made me desperate to see Tom. I’d lied about my other relationship, reasoning that Tom had suffered enough from my telling the truth once before. We’d managed to meet just once in the previous vacation. Tom had been working, although I knew he’d been disappointed not to have spent more time with me. I hadn’t done much, apart from get under Mum’s feet. I hadn’t any hobbies to speak of, or friends back in London.
As soon as I saw Tom, I knew I would not go back to university. He held me in one of his bear-hugs, tight and safe. How did he do it? He reminded me of what I’d seen when I was ten years old, but managed, in his innocence, to keep it away. I wondered what Abby would think of us being together and decided – at least, I hoped – that in spite of everything, she would approve.
I told my parents of my decision to stay in London and get a job. They were sympathetic and they didn’t try to dissuade me. Tom was just pleased to have me around. In the end I told him about my ex-boyfriend. He had seen no one since I went away and although he didn’t say he’d been waiting for me, I knew he agreed that we were bound to one another. Now it was Tom’s turn to look after me.
I was twenty-one. I had a full-time job, my own (shared) place to live and an official boyfriend. Sex with Tom wasn’t as starry as they prescribed in the magazines Abby had bought when we were at school. It was nothing like the marathon sessions with my uni boyfriend. That didn’t matter, because Tom was attentive and caring, and I loved our life together. Despite what anyone else may have thought of it suited me. I admit I came to have my doubts but for a very long time it was true. And it lasted until Jo went away last year, but I don’t want anyone to think that it was Jo who had caused it to end.
*
And I should point out that what I thought I saw that afternoon from the neighbouring garden is not the murder I mentioned at the start. If it were then the story would be over. It’s barely begun. This is where Jo comes into it. It’s because of Jo our family met the Wildings.


3


Jo and Adam got together nine months ago, in the middle of June, around the time that Mum, Dad and I had a week’s holiday in Portugal. It was my parents’ idea. Tom never wanted to go anywhere, despite the fact that I always stressed it wouldn’t be a busman’s holiday; he wouldn’t have to drive. I had no other plans and accepted my parents’ offer. I always did, even though I wondered if they wouldn’t prefer a break on their own. Or a break from each other. Trips away followed the same script as at home, with just a change of scene. But holidays can’t fail to do you some benefit, so at least they’d return in better moods, even sharing conspiratorial jokes.
Sadly for me, the edge was taken off because I arrived back to the realization that I’d have to give up the pastime I’d enjoyed for nearly three years. Trouble had been brewing at our local community radio station since early spring. We were all volunteers but some people had more ambition than others. There were two aspiring actors, a journalist who was taking time out having worked as a freelance in the Middle East, and a guy and a girl who both loved tinkering round with bits of machinery. That’s how it was – we were split evenly down the middle between those who wanted to be in front of the microphone and others who, like me, preferred to stay away from it. I liked everything, but most of all the fact that I jobbed about. One week I’d be scripting something, another cueing the morning’s tracks – and no one would ever see me. Only once did I have to speak on air. Mum and Dad, who listened in every week, never guessed it was me.
The balance was just right and we were a happy team until a new woman started. Anyone could drop in, and if they liked it and saw a niche for themselves they could stay. At once I was wary of her, I’ll admit, because she was so assertive. Her aim was to make us all more political, to really cause a stir in the community. ‘Community’ radio was what we were all about, but in all honesty, we tended to make programmes about quirky things that amused us, with occasional coverage of local events, enough to justify a little bit of sponsorship. Tom, a taxi driver like his dad, was always telling me funny anecdotes from weird passengers he’d picked up. In fact, we had a regular guest spot, narrated by one of the actors, where the local cabbie ‘told it like it was’. The voice wasn’t Tom’s but the stories were. I’d write them down pretty much verbatim, I knew his manner so well. It was one of our most popular segments. It was also one of the first victims of the new regime.
Then there was the time we were brainstorming, but had sort of degenerated into a laugh. The words ‘Sibling Secrets’ had come suddenly to my mind, so I mentioned them, wondering if there was the germ of a programme idea. People asked what I meant.
‘I don’t know exactly. Things you’ve never told your brother and sister, maybe? About them. About your parents?’ Then someone said, ‘How about Secret Siblings?’ which I had to agree sounded much more promising. ‘We could interview illegitimate children. Expose family secrets. Destroy lives!’ It was said with a violent cackle of laughter, and we all laughed, until the killjoy entered the room.
‘Listen to you all! How is anyone meant to take us seriously, wittering on like that?’ came the retort. I got the blame for starting it. Pretty soon other segments got the flick, and most of them were my favourites of our weekly hour-long programme; some had even been my idea. I was accused of trivializing, and instead of speaking up in protest, I became the target for barbed remarks. It upset me deeply, but rather than cause trouble I told them all that I’d decided to move on. I said I’d be sorry to go, and almost everyone seemed to feel the same way. We all went out for a meal in Camden, which we’d often used to do in the good days. And that was that.
So, with extra spare time on my hands, I ended up spending more time with my parents that we were used to. We had some good times. We went for drives, and took it in turns to cook. We watched catch-up TV. Tom came round, sometimes. I was at Mum and Dad’s one Saturday afternoon, helping Mum sort through some old bolts of fabric that she was considering getting rid of, when our conversation turned to the fact that lately we hadn’t heard from Jo as often as usual. She went on to say how much she and Dad were enjoying seeing more of me.
‘I know you must be feeling cut up about losing your hobby so suddenly like that, Sam, but I can’t deny it’s been lovely to have you to ourselves.’
I was touched, because my parents didn’t often make comments like that. I never doubted that they had such thoughts. I just wondered if they were afraid of committing to them aloud, in case other people overheard and would steal them away. Or maybe it would be harder to disown comments once they’ve been lodged in the public domain? Gloomy thoughts, I know. But I’m pretty sure that there was no reason for me to be suspicious. There was no good reason for me to ruin her comment by saying, ‘You don’t think Jo’s nose is out of joint, do you? She might think I’ve muscled in on her territory ...’
Mum pulled a face, as if she’d tasted something nasty. But she quickly laughed it off. ‘Don’t be daft. Of course not.’ She sighed. ‘But I’ve wondered if something’s not right. Something she hasn’t told us.’
‘What does Dad say?’ I asked.
She scoffed. ‘You know him, love. Any suggestion I make gets shot down in flames as soon as spoken. Have you noticed anything different about your sister? Has Jo said anything to you?’
I shook my head – Mum didn’t seem surprised – but in any case, it was only a few days later when the news broke. Jo had dumped her longtime boyfriend Robbie for Adam, a colleague at Hegarty Lowe. Mum and Dad really liked Robbie and were saddened by the parting, which I suppose was why Jo took her time telling us. I admit I was disappointed. Surprised, too. Jo and I were not dumpers of men by habit. Jo and Robbie had been together four years and before him, she’d been going out with a lad she’d met in the orchestra when she was seventeen. They’d just sort drifted apart from each other with no recriminations, and had ended up as mates eventually.
Almost another month went by before we met Adam. By then, early July, Jo was spending more and more time in Adam’s Islington flat, gradually shifting out of her shared house in Stoke Newington. Mum’s birthday was a Sunday, and Jo and Adam had spent Friday and Saturday at a wedding in Maidenhead, where the groom was Adam’s best friend from school. He dropped Jo back at Cricklewood in time for Mum’s birthday dinner, but stayed long enough only for a brief discussion of the ceremony, and to be coyly introduced. It was obvious that Jo was thrilled to finally be presenting him to us.
I’ll never forget my first impressions. Adam was almost Jo’s age exactly, of average height, with thick, gelled, dark hair. His build was on the slight side. He was not unlike Robbie or his predecessor, which Mum pointed out just as I’d had the thought myself. I remembered once saying to Mum, ‘You don’t think that Jo might have already had Robbie lined up as a replacement?’
Mum had been appalled. ‘I doubt that very much, Sam. Jo wouldn’t do that.’
I blanched. Was that what she’d done now, with Adam?
I was curious to know more, and it was obvious that Mum couldn’t wait till he’d gone so she could quiz Jo. But somehow we got stuck on weddings, which wasn’t surprising, because Mum had worked on wedding dresses for all the years we were growing up. We learned hardly anything.
So I rang Jo and tried to make a date to meet up after work. Hegarty Lowe are in Hanover Square. Our offices were only a few streets apart, and we try to get together at least once a month. But Jo was busy all the next week, so we e-mailed quite a lot but didn’t actually speak, which wasn’t that unusual. By the time I decided to ring Mum to ask if she’d managed to extract any more details about Adam, she’d phoned me with more news that put a new slant on everything.
‘Jo and Adam have accepted a three-month posting to Australia. They leave on the ninth of September. That’s just a month away, Sam. And they won’t be back till the week before Christmas.’
‘Is it work?’ I wanted to be sure. ‘Not just a holiday?’ Overseas travel hadn’t been amongst Jo’s accomplishments so far; she had too much happening on her doorstep. ‘Or is it both?’
‘No, it’s definitely work, she said. They’ll get time off, no doubt, and there are weekends. Isn’t it wonderful?’
How could it be? I was horrified. Straightaway I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that she wouldn’t come back. Jo would disappear. And yet part of me couldn’t quite believe it. I hadn’t made the connection between what had happened to Abby was exactly the fear I’d held for Jo. I didn’t go in for coincidences, back then, because of my policy to seek out explanations.
It would be crazy to think that Jo had stepped into my past and claimed it for herself. Besides, to be fair to her, Jo has always had a story of her own. Whatever is true about our parents, Jo isn’t secretive. It wasn’t her fault that I didn’t always know what was happening in her life.
*
Jo and I finally managed to catch up over the August Bank Holiday weekend. We met for coffee on Upper Street. I’d hoped to visit the swanky flat but Jo apologized that it was in no fit state for visitors. Adam was clearing out photographs and there was mess everyone.
‘I didn’t pay much attention to Adam at first,’ she told me. ‘I mean, they brought round the new graduates, they always do, but he wasn’t among them. He’d started off in recruitment for another company before he decided he wanted to change. Since he was older than the other newbies he somehow missed out on a lot of the inductions I was supervising.’
This kind of detail was typical of Jo but the tone was softer than the one she usually applied to descriptions of her working life where words like arbitration and cross-disciplining featured. Sometimes, I admit, I zoned out but that day I hung on to every word. At least I thought I did. So then why didn’t my fears subside at once when it was plain as day that Jo was so happy?
‘The first time I noticed him was on a company away day in Regent’s Park. He was clowning around during a game of rounders and that reminded me, I’d seen him – or heard him – mucking around in the office. He seemed too flippant, really. Not my type at all.’
‘That didn’t last,’ I observed. ‘So what happened?’
‘We all went out one night to a bar called Monroe’s.’ I nodded because I knew it; the few times Tom had met my work colleagues it was usually there because he felt awkward coming into the office. ‘He started chatting to me. Chatting me up.’ Her voice slowed, as if the words now sounded different to her own ears. ‘I thought he was very funny. I didn’t associate him with the guy in the park and I think he hoped I hadn’t. He asked me if we had the same manager, on account of being the same age, I guess. When I told him I was two grades higher he said, “OK, I’ll come clean. I knew that, Jo. But I also knew I wouldn’t have stood a chance to get to know you if I’d acted like the lowly surveyor I am.”’
‘He deceived you?’
She’d smiled, as if I’d made a joke. ‘Not really, no. He took the initiative. I admired that.’
‘So what about Australia?’
She explained that she’d been on a shortlist of three candidates. This guy was the favourite, someone who’d worked for Hegarty Lowe since leaving school. It was to be a kind of reward. He was nearly thirty, but that was acceptable in terms of the cut-off for an Australian working visa. Then he discovered his girlfriend was pregnant, and had to pull out. So it was down to two. Jo decided to enhance her application by suggesting that Adam accompany her.
‘It was a bit risky,’ she admitted. ‘We haven’t really made it public knowledge that we’re going out with each other, although most people know. There doesn’t seem to be a company line on couples working together, but you can’t be sure of these things until you test them.’ I nodded, supposing that it must be true if Jo thought it. ‘On the other hand,’ she elaborated, ‘it makes sense. All that experience I got on the research and forecasting team will be useful, and as for Adam, well, they need surveyors there, too. He’s brilliant at his job – everyone says he’s come on in leaps and bounds since he joined. They’d only have to fund one lot of accommodation, and they’re paying our salaries anyway. They’ll get two people, practically for the price of one.’
In the event, Jo’s enthusiasm appealed to her bosses and, just as importantly, to the ‘they’ she’d referred to – the Australian arm of the company that was awaiting expansion or restructuring or whatever was happening. Things were quickly arranged.
Her final words on that last evening by ourselves, a week before departure, were: ‘You will look after them both, won’t you, Sam?’ It was followed by a look of deep scrutiny, almost suspicion. I bridled, a little. Did she think I hadn’t understood she was referring to Mum and Dad? Of course I knew. It was just that with all my worries about Jo, which I’d naturally kept from her, there seemed no room for concern about anyone else. Did her imperilment guarantee our safety? I wouldn’t have put it past Jo to make such an impossible presumption.
But what irritated me was the imperative in the request. All those years she’d resisted my well-intentioned efforts to protect her, even giving the impression that I was intruding on her personal space, and causing trouble. Now here was Jo blithely, blatantly telling me what to do. But only because she wouldn’t be here to do it herself. As if I were no better than a stand-in.
And worst of all, she’d stolen Abby’s words – our words. I needn’t have worried about forcing my story onto Jo after all. Couldn’t she have come up with some of her own?
*
I tried to be helpful. Through our IT contact at work, I arranged for Mum and Dad to buy a laptop, just like the one I’m writing on now. I spent a Saturday afternoon setting up their Hotmail account so Jo could e-mail from Australia. As I keyed in their details and checked connections, they loomed over my shoulder in the most companionable way. No, it was more than that. They were dependent on each other to master the task. ‘Have you got that, Mal?’ ‘Were you listening to what Sam said, Ellen?’ ‘Better write that down, hadn’t we?’ It pleased me to see the united front which Jo and I had willed them to be when we were growing up.
They were back to full bickering mode when I arrived at the house after breakfast on the Saturday of Jo and Adam’s departure, and unbearable in the car, constantly arguing about petrol and parking. Perhaps the enormity of Jo’s plans had only just occurred to them, and they were frightened. I thought the drive would last for ever, but we found ourselves on the North Circular and then the M4 almost too quickly and at Heathrow just before eleven, so well within the allocated period for check-ins for international flights.
I’d wondered if I’d be able to keep calm, and not make a scene, begging Jo and Adam to stay seconds before they passed through the immigration gates. But nobody noticed me because they were consumed by their own anxieties.
Overall, it was a disappointing time to be at the airport. Stupid of me, I know, to expect the kind of rush and crush you see on films where people slip through security ahead of the private detectives or police or even loved ones hoping to intercept their escape plans. If anything, the mood was dozy, so early in the morning. But I looked closely, and saw all kinds of mini-dramas unfolding.
Suddenly, we heard: ‘Mum! Dad! Sam!’ and all turned to see Jo and Adam to our left, carrying only hand luggage and hugging themselves in nervous anticipation. We must have walked past them on the way in and not noticed. Adam looked sheepish – and quite tired – but he smiled warmly at Mum and Dad. ‘These are my parents,’ he said, indicating an older couple standing behind them. ‘Roger and Zita Wilding.’
‘Pleased to meet you,’ said Mum. ‘I’m Ellen and this is Malcolm, my husband.’
Dad nodded. ‘Zita. That’s an unusual name.’
Mrs Wilding smiled. ‘It’s short for Rosita. I’m a quarter Italian. I’m delighted we’ve finally met.’
Mum noticed an absence of suitcases and said, ‘Are you all checked in?’ She nodded at the Wildings but focused on Jo. She asked it as if she hoped they would change their minds.
‘Yes!’ Jo’s excitement was uncontainable. ‘I’m a bundle of nerves but Adam’s practically asleep on his feet.’
He grinned. ‘I couldn’t go all the way to Australia for three months without seeing the end of series six.’
Jo rolled her eyes. ‘Thanks to you two we’ve watched nothing but The Sopranos since his birthday.’ I realized she was louring at Adam’s parents, which struck me as an outrageous thing to do, till I realized it just reflected the way Jo had immersed herself in the family. Did I see Mum squirm slightly at that?
‘I’m sure they’ve got box sets in Australia ...’ Roger noted warmly.
Mum asked, ‘When was Adam’s birthday?’ As if she had an exclusive right to having been born in the month of July.
‘First of August,’ Roger said and, after a moment, everyone laughed, even Mum and Dad. I suppose it was at the prospect of six weeks of The Sopranos, which isn’t a programme I’ve ever wanted to watch.
‘How long before you have to go through?’ Mum asked, over the interruption of a tannoyed security announcement.
‘Not yet, Mum,’ Jo said soothingly. ‘That’s why I wanted everyone to get here early. Let’s go and have coffee.’
‘Yes please!’ Adam grinned, and we all laughed again.
Mum and Dad pulled away, towards the coffee cart at the nearest end of the terminal.
‘Not there,’ Roger Wilding said warmly. ‘Dan’s minding a table for us at the other end. It’s a bit livelier – and there’s much more to see.’
So past the reproachful immigration gates we went to the Café Nero lounge where Daniel Wilding, Adam’s older brother, was draped across a small table which was covered with the weekend papers. Had Jo even mentioned that Adam had a brother? He seemed to be scanning several sections at once – was he comparing articles? – and when he withdrew it was so sudden it reminded me of the arm of a record player suddenly springing off the vinyl at the end of the playlist.
He smiled, distractedly. I wondered if he ought to be wearing glasses. They’d suit him. We all squashed in on both sides of the table, me sitting on the edge and feeling obliged to inspect the view of two brightly-painted tails and the airport perimeter fence so it wouldn’t look like I was staring. But the contrasts between us all didn’t escape me: Adam and Daniel, both looking tired (was it really that early?); Mum and Dad, wide-eyed and alert, almost painfully so; Roger and Zita were buoyant but calm at the same time. Jo, in her controlled excitement, seemed more like the Wildings than any of the Steadmans. My own expression was not commented on so I suppose I was, as usual, calm masking caution.
We had our coffee and Dad and Roger ate toasted sandwiches. The Wildings seemed to find it easier to engage with the happy couple, but they appeared to be no better informed about their plans and aspirations. Mum looked rather overwhelmed by Zita who talked a lot, and possibly also because she appeared so glamorous. Mum shouldn’t have done, because she always looks nice, but next to Zita her outfit was understated, somehow shy. I think Mum also felt snubbed on Dad’s behalf about the choice of café. Her bravest effort was coercing everyone to have their photographs taken, shuffling us reluctantly into various combinations around the crowded table. I wondered if her inclusion of the Wildings was incidental. Daniel remained silent throughout in a way that could have been anti-social, but somehow I didn’t think was.
The consolation was that I stopped being suspicious of Adam. It was our first real insight into the solidity of his and Jo’s relationship. They were absorbed in each other, sharing a kind of private code: three word phrases at most, but enough to prompt a visible display of reassurance, which turned into excitement at the prospect of the weeks ahead. He posed no threat at all. That was my memory of them as they ventured irretrievably through immigration.
‘I want to cry but I’m too excited!’ Jo said, and hugged each of us in turn, with added enthusiasm, to make up for it. She lingered at the gates longer than other people and eventually Adam had to tug her through, both of them laughing in a kind of comedy sketch. There had been moist eyes on both mothers and it was only by laughing at each other, making a second comic skit, that calm was restored.
As soon as Jo and Adam had gone, Daniel had unfurled a sheaf of papers and, still standing, resumed his reading. Dad and Malcolm found something to talk about. Leaving me alone but to be honest, I was occupied by trying to fathom what accord the fathers had struck and what had consumed Daniel’s attention. So I nearly missed, or perhaps just misheard, Zita’s parting words to Mum: ‘... invitation remains open, Ellen. Anytime at all.’
Mum mumbled thanks, and Dad said, ‘Well, no point hanging round here any longer.’ He checked his watch. ‘Easily make it back for eleven.’ He seemed to be talking to Roger. I remembered the Wildings lived in Cambridge. We’d be home before ten at the latest. They must have been discussing sport on TV.
And that was it. Mum and Dad dropped me at home. Nobody else was in. I tidied up, put on a load of washing and idled the day until Tom finished his shift. Then I went out to meet him.
I didn’t think much about Jo and Adam. She’d promised to text when they landed in Sydney and sure enough, twenty-six hours later the message arrived. I didn’t think at all about the Wildings or even my parents, to be honest.
When Mum called, mid-week, as she usually did, she sounded agitated. I asked what was bothering her.
‘We’ve had this invitation ...’ she began.
‘Who from?’
Now she was annoyed that I’d interrupted her. ‘From the Wildings ... Zita and Roger,’ she added, unnecessarily, and sounded annoyed at her own mention of their names. ‘They want to have us over for lunch.’
‘That’s nice,’ I said. ‘Isn’t it? When?’
‘Sunday,’ she intoned, full of doom. ‘Sam, this time, we really can’t say no.’
I wanted to be sympathetic but already I heard alarm bells. ‘Mum, what do you mean, “this time”?’
‘She kept asking – kept phoning, or sending notes ...’
‘Who did?’
‘Adam’s mother. Zita. Jo must have passed on our details. I wish she hadn’t. And I wish she’d warned us.’
‘Mum, when did she ask?’
‘The first time, Adam and Jo had only known each other a few weeks. Zita said it would be lovely to meet, but I thought it a bit too early. The next time, she was more forceful. Pushy. Like it had turned into an obligation. By the third time—’
‘Mum, you turned her down three times? She must have been offended.’
‘It didn’t put her off,’ Mum retorted, shrugging off my criticism. ‘Couldn’t the woman take a hint?’
I couldn’t decide if I was mad at Mum for embarrassing the family or indignant on behalf of the Wildings’. The latter seemed more likely, but why was I defending these people whom I didn’t know? ‘You just said no every time?’
‘I made an excuse,’ Mum reasoned. ‘We were busy.’ But we both knew my parents were no busier at weekends than I was. ‘The upshot is, we can’t say no, this time. She’ll just keep going on at us.’
‘Why don’t you want to go?’
‘They’re not—’ I heard her claw the air for a description ‘—our kind of people.’
So they don’t spend their whole lives arguing? I savagely thought. Should I have said, ‘We ought to be flattered that they’re taking an interest in us!’ But it would sound too fierce and too defensive.
I sighed. ‘Oh, Mum. You can’t say that after spending less than an hour with them. Why not give them the benefit of the doubt? I’m sure they’re lovely. They seemed very nice.’ It was strange giving advice like that. ‘You’ve met the families of Jo’s boyfriends before. You’ve liked them.’
Mum was adamant. ‘It’s different this time.’
‘What’s different?’ My efforts to soothe had failed; now I was feeling uneasy.
‘It’s ...’ Maybe she didn’t feel she needed to offer me an explanation. Or maybe the explanation was too embarrassing. Grudgingly, she said, ‘I suppose you’re right, Sam. You will come, won’t you?’
It wasn’t often that she leaned on me for favours. So despite Mum’s tone, I felt flattered. I heard it in my voice. ‘Of course I’ll come,’ I said.
Now Mum sounded more cheerful. ‘If you stay over on Saturday night – come over whenever you like and I’ll cook – and we’ll drive up. They want us early on Sunday: I wonder why. Maybe they’ve got something more interesting planned for the evening.’
In the background I heard Dad call: ‘Or maybe they’re just being pleasant and genuinely want time to get to know us.’
But I hadn’t the energy, or the inclination, to be party to a fresh debate, so I promptly ended the call, and left them to their private discontent.


4


When I got to Cricklewood on Saturday night, Mum showed me a postcard they’d had from Jo and Adam, written to mark their safe arrival. Then we went to check their e-mail, because apparently their connection had ‘died’ (Dad’s word) so they hadn’t been able to log on all week. The e-mails were similar to the two I’d received, and established that Jo and Adam had already fallen in love with Sydney and couldn’t wait to explore. Their luxurious apartment overlooked the harbour. We all shared feelings of approval and envy.
Just before nine, Dad went to the Crown and Anchor for the pub quiz as he did every Saturday night, and Mum and I stayed in and watched a film. We didn’t talk much, and as soon as the credits rolled at eleven, we hugged goodnight and I went off to bed. On Sunday I woke a little after eight to find that all hell had broken loose.
‘Where’s Dad?’ I asked, coming into the kitchen where Mum was sitting at the table in her dressing gown, drinking coffee from a mug we’d had for ever.
Bitterly she said, ‘If he’s not still being sick in the lav then I suspect he’s crawled back to bed – your sister’s bed.’
I came and sat beside her. ‘Mum, what’s wrong with him?’
She said, ‘He’s hungover, Sam, that’s what’s wrong with him. Him and his mates won pub quiz last night and drank themselves stupid with the proceeds. He’s been sick ever since. I’m surprised you didn’t hear him.’
I said I hadn’t. I must have fallen straight to sleep, and it suddenly occurred to me that I should have been prepared to lay awake, worrying about Jo. ‘He’s OK now, isn’t he?’ I said. ‘He must be sleeping again. The bathroom was free a minute ago.’
Mum snorted. ‘Easy for him. Safe in the knowledge that he’s ruined my day.’
‘You mean he won’t be able to go to Cambridge—’
‘He could, I’m sure, but he flatly refuses, which means that I can’t go.’
‘Why not, Mum?’
‘I wouldn’t want to be outnumbered two to one, now would I?’ She shook her head. ‘Not a very good show for Jo. I should have warned him not to overdo it, but how was I to know? It’s months since they even came third.’
‘Have you phoned the Wildings and told them?’ I said, wondering what I’d do all day. See Tom, I supposed.
‘No,’ said Mum. Unusually for her, there was defeat in her voice. ‘It’s still a bit early and quite frankly, I’m too embarrassed. What can I tell them?’
A little late for that, I thought. ‘Just say that Dad’s not well. They’ll understand, of course they will.’ I was only guessing. ‘Look, I’ll ring them. I’ll leave it for a bit – wait till eight-thirty, say – and then I’ll phone.’
‘Would you, Sam?’ Her relief was palpable. ‘Oh, thanks, love. Thank you.’
I hadn’t given Daniel Wilding a second thought since our meeting at the airport. I hadn’t formed any prejudices against him or in his favour. However, I was surprised that he sounded so approachable as I explained our dilemma.
‘You can still come, can’t you, Samantha?’
He made it sound like the most reasonable suggestion in the world. Only one aspect was unlikely: why had he used my full name? But it sounded right, somehow, his voice comfortable and soothing. I stumbled over an answer that was a kind of no.
‘Really? Obviously your mother will want to look after your father—’ Shows how little you know, I thought ‘—but there’s no reason for your day to be spoilt, is there?’
So he assumed I’d been looking forward to it. ‘I don’t drive,’ I said. ‘I mean, I can, but – Dad was going to take the car.’
‘Then catch the train, and I’ll pick you up at the station. My mother’s gone to quite a bit of trouble, you see, and she’s so looking forward to entertaining. Naturally, your parents will be most welcome when they – well, when they can fit us in – but for now, come on your own. Look, I’ve got a timetable here – let me – let me ...’ I heard him riffling through the booklet. ‘Ah, here we go ... Can you get to King’s Cross by eleven?’
I muttered ‘yes’, and the plan was made. ‘I’m going on my own,’ I told Mum, slightly stunned. What had I agreed to?
She seemed delighted for me, as if she’d planned it all. ‘That’s such a good idea, love. You and Daniel hardly got a word in edgeways at the airport, what with Zita dominating the conversation. He seemed very nice, and he’s only two years older than you, so you’ll have lots in common.’ She laughed. Mum has a nice laugh, although it’s not often that you hear it. The laugh she gave then was mischievous and playful. ‘And don’t worry, Sam love, I won’t tell Tom.’
I laughed too, pleased to have witnessed a side to Mum I seldom saw. I wasn’t suspicious in any way. I didn’t think she was scheming. I had no plans of my own – quite truthfully – and it didn’t occur to me that Jo’s absence would be an opportunity for my parents. Would I ever have possessed the courage to think that?
I just assumed that Mum was relieved that she didn’t have to go to Cambridge herself. It was satisfying to be doing her a favour. I smiled to myself, being pretty sure that where the Wildings were concerned, she wouldn’t be quick to make new arrangements.
*
It struck me on that train that I’d never had to act as our family’s ambassador. Should I have dressed up? I glanced down at my second-best skirt and noticed that part of the hem had come unstitched. I had on a new top, and the pashmina I had draped across my shoulders smartened things a little, but was it enough? The possibilities in my wardrobe were limited. All my clothes were more or less the same, camouflage items chosen so I didn’t stand out. Nearly everything started as work clothes and after a season or two became relegated to weekend wear. Tom seldom commented on anything I wore, so there was no point making a special effort for him. My parents always said I looked nice.
Maybe, I concluded, I should have stayed in London. I flicked through the TV guide that had come with Mum and Dad’s Sunday paper, and rang Tom, who was still in bed. He was hardly communicative, so I tried a few pages of the book I’d brought from home. It was a present from one of my radio pals. I hadn’t heard from any of them for months, even though I still received weekly updates about session times. Wasn’t it nice that nobody had thought to unsubscribe me? I decided to e-mail the friend who’d bought the book, in thanks, so perhaps we could renew our acquaintance.
Daniel’s dark green Peugeot pulled up as I stepped on to the semi-circle of the station concourse. He looked a bit scruffy in jumper and chinos, and I felt both relieved and disappointed. The back seat of his car was covered in bulging cardboard boxes, but he’d cleared the front passenger seat and the footwell. He explained that he’d worked all day yesterday, the result being these cartons of paperwork neatly organized for his return to London in the morning. He said again how pleased he was that I could come, and how delighted Roger and Zita were. I asked if it were far to his parents’ house, suddenly fearing a long drive out of the city centre to some tiny village sparsely furnished with farmhouses, with a man whom I didn’t know at all. Yet I wasn’t suspicious in the way I’d felt mistrustful of Adam.
He asked what I did and when I told him about Michael Coady he exclaimed, ‘That’s amazing! I’m general manager at Whiteley’s. The shopping centre at Bayswater. I’ve not dealt with your lot but my colleagues have. So, we’ve something else in common: the world of retail.’
I almost said I’d have to get the lowdown on Daniel’s set-up from Michael, but wondered if it wouldn’t sound as jokey as I’d intend. It might just sound rude.
The Wildings’ home was near the centre of town and away from the station the traffic was light so we arrived in no time. I said I could have walked but Daniel said, ‘Nonsense,’ with unexpected force. In the driveway he parked beside a Golf and a Lexus; there was easily room for three cars. He explained that his parents had been in the house for about five years. He and Adam had grown up near Paddington, not at all far from where Daniel was living now, and their parents had left London when Adam finished university.
I got out of the car just as Zita appeared on the doorstep, glamorous again, framed by the curtains of ivy that tumbled down both storeys of the house. I felt a pang of guilt, thinking of Mum. Roger emerged, wearing a tie on under a not-very-old cardigan.
Promising a tour later, Zita pressed coffee on us, as if we’d travelled through the night. Already I could tell that the house was beautifully decorated, with lots of artwork on the walls: prints, tapestries, wall-hangings. It looked as if they’d lived there for twenty years, instead of five. It was the sort of house its owners used a lot, and really lived in. I resisted any comparison with our own.
Rich cooking smells filled the rooms and Daniel proudly revealed that his mother had been a food writer, for magazines and newspapers, when the boys were small, and had even gone on television. I recognized her name, or rather, the name she’d written under. But she’d somehow missed out on the vogue for Italian cooking – ‘not Italian enough, or perhaps too much,’ said Roger – and had never achieved great success and, for whatever reason, the food we ate that day had no trace of Italian whatsoever.
Zita was dignified in her retirement, and so was Roger, who had been a lecturer at Imperial College. He’d grown up in Cambridgeshire, which is why the couple had returned. I remembered the moment at the airport when I’d clocked Adam and decided I had no reason to mistrust him. I felt the same way about his parents. It sort of surprised me, as if I’d been too blinkered by Mum’s aversion to the day to expect to find an opinion of my own. It spurred me on, too. With Zita and Adam, there was a physical resemblance, but their personalities seemed quite unalike. Roger and Daniel were practically carbon copies of each other – in the way they looked, sounded and moved. But it seemed like too simple an assessment. It seemed too soon to form an opinion of Daniel, though I’m not sure why that was.
*
‘You know,’ said Zita, towards the end of the meal, ‘I always thought that if my boys were lucky enough to find partners then the girls would have to have brothers. It’s the only way they’d understand them. But that obviously doesn’t apply to you and Jo.’
‘What about your fellow?’ asked Roger, before I could answer.
Was it my imagination or did Daniel actually look up, slightly, then? I was already unsettled. How did they know about Tom? Oh – from Jo, of course.
‘Tom’s an only child,’ I said, unsure how to respond to Zita’s comment. ‘What makes you say that, Zita?’
‘The fact that boys and girls are completely different species!’ She looked to her husband for confirmation and they laughed, as if sharing some grimly funny experience.
‘Do you think they are?’ I said, hoping it didn’t sound too naive. ‘I mean, apart from the obvious ...’
‘Well, the obvious isn’t perhaps so obvious after all,’ said Zita. ‘These days, we’re much better informed. I’ve a niece with ten-year-old twins. One of each, boy and girl. When she was pregnant my sister read endlessly on the subject. But when we started a family there were one or two books that everyone read. That’s all.’
‘And when the boys were growing up the emphasis was on girls. No offence intended, Sam. But it was all about empowering girls. Liberating girls.’
I thought back to my own childhood. ‘I suppose that’s right. We used to get shown all these documentaries about women welders and pilots.’
‘And a few less compelling programmes showing boys play with dolls, I’m sure,’ added Roger, without a snigger.
‘The fact is,’ said Zita, ‘boys had it tougher. They have it tougher. We suspected, but now we know it for sure. It’s all to do with genetics.’
Daniel said, ‘It’s amazing that Addy and I have turned out to be such well-adjusted, rounded individuals.’
‘Listen to him!’ cried Roger.
‘Dan’s got a point,’ said Zita. ‘Do you remember when he was about seven or eight his teacher complained he didn’t listen properly.’
As if to prove this were no longer the case, Daniel, who’d subsided back into the sharp angles of the dining chair, sat up. Did he actually wink at me?
‘I remember ...’ said Roger, smiling at his son.
‘Turns out it’s perfectly normal for little boys that age to have hearing deficiencies. They have growth spurts which somehow affect their ear canals. That doesn’t apply to girls. And it hots up again in adolescence. All that testosterone!’ Zita gave a bark of laughter. ‘But in all seriousness, that age it’s as if they’re nervous system is complete rewired. Amazing to think of, isn’t it?’
‘It is,’ I said. ‘It’s good to have proof, I guess. Helpful.’
‘Well, it was all supposition then. We brought them up by guesswork and instinct, I suppose.’
‘You did a very god job,’ I said, without feeling qualified to know.
Daniel smiled again. Did he think I’d flattered him?
‘That’s not for us to say, I suppose,’ said Roger. ‘We didn’t always get it right. You never do. And we both worked full-time and the boys were busy at school. Sport, music, endless co-curriculars ...’
‘Detention,’ laughed Zita, being playful.
‘Are you both from large families?’ I asked Daniel’s parents.
Zita explained. ‘Practically all girls. I’m the eldest of three and Roger has two sisters, one either side.’
‘You had plenty of aunts!’ I said to Daniel.
Zita nodded. ‘And yet, teenage boys need male influences, I’ve discovered, other than their parents. Rog was marvellous, he really was—’
‘Dad, you rocked.’
Roger leaned across the table and swatted Daniel with the serving spoon.
Zita rolled her eyes. I hope she didn’t mind that I’d smiled. ‘But apart from him adult men were thin on the ground. My sisters hadn’t married yet and Rog’s brothers-in-law weren’t exactly forthcoming. Luckily, the boys had plenty of good teachers. And being at mixed schools definitely helped I think.’
‘I went to an all-boys school,’ said Roger, ‘and at the end of it I knew nothing about women. Nothing about life, for that matter.’
‘But Dad, that was in the dark ages. There wasn’t so much to know.’
‘Isn’t he clever!’ said Zita and rolled her eyes again. ‘So gratifying to know that his exorbitant education was money well spent.’
Daniel reached for the wine bottle. ‘Right, now if we’ve finished deconstructing my childhood, perhaps we should think about dessert?’
‘Yes, of course ...’ Roger got to his feet. ‘This is where I take over.’
Zita went to collect the plates but her husband stilled her hands. ‘It’s fine ...’ Daniel got on with refilling our glasses.
‘Daniel’s right,’ said Zita. ‘We’ve spent all this time telling you about our family but haven’t asked a single thing about yours!’
‘I’m not sure there’s much to say,’ I began. ‘Probably Jo has filled you in on the important stuff.’
Zita shrugged. ‘Perhaps she has but you’re our guest now.’
Daniel glanced at me again. How I longed to be so languidly slumped in my chair as he was and to use such cool and confident words. ‘There’s two sides to every story.’
Zita said, rather as if her son hadn’t spoken, ‘Sam, please tell us about your extended family?’
‘Mum’s got two sisters. They’re older. We don’t see very much of them.’
‘Is her family from London?’
‘Yes. I don’t know why they moved away.’ I’d never asked, never been told. It seemed an oversight. ‘They got married and divorced, I guess.’ I added, ‘Dad’s an only child. His parents died when we were quite small.’
‘Oh, that’s sad. I mean, inevitable as you get older. Our boys had all four grandparents up until they started university. Our mothers are alive still and hale and hearty, touchwood. What about your other grandparents?’
‘They’re still around,’ I said, stalling, because for the first time the explanation I’d offer – and I knew it would be sought – seemed embarrassing.
‘Where do they live?’
‘Gran’s in Leagrave and Grandad’s not too far away. Near Hitchin.’
‘Oh,’ said Zita, trying to sound neutral. ‘Have they been apart for long?’
‘They’re not divorced!’ I put in quickly, too defensively. Daniel smiled. I gritted my teeth. ‘They just don’t live together. Not for the past ten years or so.’
‘Non-speaks?’ Daniel asked.
‘No, they get on very well. They still go on holiday together. They cook for each other. They just prefer to have their own space.’
Zita smiled, as if she approved. ‘Good for them! I hope that doesn’t sound patronizing, Sam, because I don’t mean it to.’
‘Of course not,’ I said, then realized more was needed to convince Zita. ‘Mum isn’t so happy about it,’ I added, and regretted it instantly. Suddenly, I remembered something one of my aunts had said the last time we had seen her, ages ago. With Barb’s confidence, I declared, ‘The strange thing is that while living apart has strengthened their own relationship it’s done to the opposite to Mum’s relationship with them.’
Then I remembered that Mum had looked daggers at Barb for making the comment because Jo and I were present. In contrast, Zita didn’t have a problem saying it in front of her son, but then Daniel had struck me as pretty fearless, or perhaps immune to fear. Or had he really just disengaged from the discussion? Zita looked startled. Did the words sound unconvincing coming from me? Had I said too much?
She sipped some wine. ‘I think it can be as difficult to accept changes in your parents’ lives when you’re grown-up as when you’re a child.’
‘That’s one of the many things you learn as you get older,’ Zita added. ‘We just don’t know what it’s like in other people’s marriages.’ When Roger came in a moment later with dessert, the look she gave her husband made it perfectly clear that they both understood their own.
‘It’s only fruit salad, I’m afraid,’ Roger said. ‘But I did leave the posh ice cream out to soften in your honour, Sam, if you’d like some ...’
‘No, it looks lovely, thank you,’ I said to them both, wondering if Daniel would assume the appreciation was extended also to him. I didn’t want the ice cream’s coldness exploding through the nerves in my head because already it was overloaded with thoughts.
Zita’s remark was the most truthful thing I’d ever heard, but it was offered in such an offhand way, like it was old news, or a basic platitude, just another comment about parenthood. Not, I assumed, that there had been anything accidental about the Wildings’ approach to the subject nor their analysis of it now. I knew it wasn’t a truth I could ever have arrived at myself. But then I’d never met people like the Wildings before.
Roger and Zita both smiled with renewed generosity. ‘Well, enjoy!’
*
Why had I bothered fretting about what to wear? A wardrobe full of clothes and enough breaks to change in and out of them would have gone nowhere towards preparing for my role that day. What was I thinking trying to be an ambassador for my family? Was that really what Roger and Zita expected? So much that was second nature to the Wildings seemed alien to me. Their experience outweighed mine and you could say that was entirely appropriate, they were a generation older. It didn’t help that they assumed I knew and understood as much as they did. Was this how they treated Jo? How forthcoming was she about our family, our aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents? Jo didn’t prickle the way Mum did – the way perhaps I did, sometimes – and haven’t I already said that her life was an open book? She wasn’t careless but she wouldn’t hesitate to talk. To Jo it would be a demonstration of pride that she discussed our lives so freely.
Talking about food, and about the pleasures of escaping city life, were easy and comfortable currencies with the Wildings. But the fact is, I found it impossible to share them. Zita and Roger would have been horrified to know how ill-at-ease I was, and that the high quality of their kindness only made it worse. Daniel ought to have been my ally – or would that have meant siding against his parents? For all that they’d teased him he never appeared slighted. Then again, just because he fired back smart-aleck comments didn’t mean he didn’t care what was said. His presence ought to have evened up the numbers, at least. But maybe he too was in a different league from me.
Like Jo, I realized. She should have helped by prepping us about the family she’d introduced us to. But if I was annoyed it was because her warning words still rankled. She’d actually qualified her instructions by saying, ‘Look after Mum and Dad, I mean.’ I should have done more than nod and say, ‘I’ll do my best.’ I’d hoped it sounded confident and knowing, but instead I’d just felt dimly clueless. How could I hope to meet such a promise when I had no idea what it might involve?
I wonder, though, if I hadn’t felt so pathetic in my efforts to keep up with the conversation, would I have seen openings to the subjects that we didn’t discuss? In the end, they came to matter most. I don’t think Roger and Zita – or Daniel – were trying to put me off the scent or bombard me with distractions. You could say that there was far too much to reveal in the space of a leisurely Sunday. But there would have been room for me to squeeze in a couple of questions, surely. I could have asked about Daniel’s girlfriend, Hannah. They’d got me to talk about Tom, so it wouldn’t have been out of place. People might say the reason I kept quiet was because already I’d decided I wanted Daniel for myself. But that isn’t true.
Why didn’t Daniel mention Hannah? Perhaps he was too busy deferring to his parents, or to me. Perhaps he felt that there was little room to speak of himself when there was still so much to say about Adam. Or maybe, knowing how his parents felt, he didn’t want to invoke their disapproval in front of a guest. I wouldn’t have believed that lovely Zita and gentle Roger could have reacted so fiercely, though it became obvious that they had. First I heard it from Daniel and then, after the murder – because of the murder – I had to conclude it for myself.
Zita and Roger didn’t like Hannah, and not just because of their connection to Daniel’s previous girlfriend. Nor did they think that I should have taken over the role. Hannah was prone to jealousy of a kind I can only imagine. She was overbearing and overprotective. She was irrational. She was selfish. Too possessive. Daniel wasn’t sure about the relationship, either. He was even a little afraid of her.
It won’t help anyone, I know, but at last I’ve begun to feel a little sympathy for Hannah. I don’t think she ever stood a chance with Daniel. Should she be congratulated for her persistence, or pitied?
But I can’t get hung up so early in the story on one person, when so many others were about to cross my path; some leaping forward, others lurking, all of them demanding my attention, and distracting me from the vigilance which was perhaps the only skill I had to offer to those I really wanted to support.
*
Underpinning every conversation was talk of Jo and Adam, and once began discussing them exclusively, the afternoon became much easier to negotiate. My contribution was keeping my fears about Jo’s safety private, although it was reassuring to hear that Roger and Zita had been as surprised as us by the suddenness of Jo and Adam’s partnership. Roger and Zita showed me the postcard they’d received and told me about their phone calls, which revealed exactly the same information that we had had.
Just after six, and the promised tour of the house, I thanked the Wildings for a wonderful time and said I’d better make a move. I had enjoyed myself, mostly, which made me realize just how anxious I had been.
Daniel offered to drive me back to the station. I thanked him effusively, but said I could easily walk – wishing I’d paid more attention to the route from the station. He shook his head, and Zita and Roger were equally insistent. I realized that although we’d all been drinking wine – I’d brought a bottle with me and Daniel had opened another – Daniel himself had drunk no alcohol at all. Then his car keys were suddenly in his hand. I felt myself blush, slightly woozy, and guilty to have argued, when clearly he’d abstained for the purpose of driving me back to the station.
The day had begun cool and cloudy but the sun had emerged earlier in the afternoon, so the car was warm inside. I felt too drowsy to chat and hoped Daniel might put the radio on. I wondered which stations he’d listen to, and what kind of music. He didn’t touch the radio, but fortunately there was no conversation until we approached the station. To rouse myself, I thanked him again, sounding grateful and enthusiastic.
‘We enjoyed it too, Samantha,’ he said as he drove the car up alongside the bicycle park, a short distance from where he’d picked me up that morning. There was something experimental, this time, about his use of my full name. I decided that I couldn’t work him out. He ‘dsaid very little at lunch, but was engaged in the conversation, and never caught off-guard or unable to answer questions. But sometimes, he’d looked bored, as if he were disappointed with how the day was panning out. With my company, perhaps? He was certainly engaged now: ‘As I said, my mother would have been so disappointed if you’d cancelled. But, more than that I wanted to meet you properly, to get to know you because I wondered if you’d be the same as me. If we were in the same position of having an extraordinary, inspiring younger sibling.’
‘What do you mean?’ I hazarded.
He nodded. ‘Well, Jo’s sensational, isn’t she? My mother said that if she had a daughter, she’d want her to be just like Jo. Well, what’s that if it isn’t high praise?’
I shrugged, good-naturedly, I hoped. ‘I wouldn’t know.’
‘Not that I really know Jo. I wasn’t here when she came for a weekend, but I did meet up with them once – we had dinner together in Chinatown. Jo was marvellous, and Adam’s totally besotted. He’s never talked about anyone the way he talks about her. They were made for each other.’ I wondered if that’s what Mum had tried to say when she’d said that Jo’s latest relationship was different from the ones she’d had before? ‘So we’ll all be watching their progress eagerly,’ Daniel continued before pausing, hesitantly. ‘All of which is great, of course, but – well, where does it leave us? I mean, it shouldn’t be a competition—’
I said it wasn’t, and his face crumpled into a friendly smile.
‘Exactly, exactly. It’s just that ...’
I said, bristling, wide awake now, and feeling as if I’d been plunged into a different car with another person. Where had all this come from? ‘Are you asking me if I’m jealous of Jo – resentful?’
He shook his head. ‘No, but I wonder if it’s sometimes difficult …’
I opened the car door. I had to get out. ‘Well, I hope it won’t come as a disappointment to you but Jo and I get on very well and we—’
‘Oh, I’m not saying that. Adam and I ...’
I cut him short as I scrambled out, peering down at him, from the safety of the pavement, but as if from a great height. ‘There’s no jealousy between us and I don’t feel inferior towards her. Never have ...’
He spread his hands, mollified. ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend.’
‘You didn’t,’ I said, closing the door firmly. As I stepped back, he touched the window control and the glass slid down. I looked in. ‘Thanks again, Daniel, for the lift, and everything. I’ll call your parents in the week and thank them properly.’ I couldn’t decide whether he’d sensed any harshness in my voice but I knew I’d intended some.
He was unfazed. ‘It was a real pleasure, Samantha,’ he said. ‘You’re more than welcome, any time. We’re practically in-laws now, aren’t we, so we’d better get used to each other’s company. Ask your parents to get in touch with mine and re-arrange, won’t you? And I’ll hope to see you again very soon.’
I waved, as if I hadn’t heard the question, but I wasn’t avoiding it. Daniel was so obviously right that did it even need answering? We would meet, because if Jo and Adam’s relationship lasted, our families would have a long association. As they would if Jo and Adam failed to return – especially, then, for there would be accusations and recriminations, each party wanting to blame the other, even if neither was responsible.
I wasn’t sure, then, if Daniel was thinking along those lines as he waved goodbye. All he’d wanted was to share a moan with someone he thought had a similar view. And yet still I managed to conceive that wonderfully friendly day as a trap, when what I knew of his parents told me they would never have been party to such a deception. But then, what did I really know about them? It was simpler just to get away and not to think of them at all.

 


5


It was easy to push out Daniel: an act of entirely justified self-preservation. It didn’t feel like losing a much needed friend. Besides, hadn’t I already suffered by allowing someone to squeeze me out of the hobby I really enjoyed?
Without Saturdays at the radio station, my spare time often felt like a burden, especially when the weather improved and people lingered out instead of rushing home after work. I had my exercise class on Wednesday evenings, and there were drinks in the office on Fridays. If I said I had an empty flat to go back to, my colleagues often reacted with envy, but the truth was I didn’t always like it.
Having the place to ourselves made no difference to Tom, who came round whenever I asked. It won’t surprise anyone to know that I never went to his, and hadn’t, in fact, since that visit with Abby. He wasn’t always available anyway, because he liked to work weekends. He said the journeys were longer, more interesting and profitable. ‘But if you’ve got plans let me know and I’ll change my schedule. Easily done.’ It was always down to me to organize our time together, and I didn’t often feel full of inspiration. If I said nothing, Tom would just take random days off, doing little apart from catching up on sleep or missed TV programmes his dad had recorded. He would sometimes forget to tell me when he was off.
Mum and Dad were, however, always available. So two Saturdays after Jo and Adam’s departure I went home, to Cricklewood, for lunch.
They didn’t ask about Cambridge, but I didn’t expect them to. Try as I might, however, I couldn’t avoid making comparisons between our set-up and the Wildings’. I was worried that I’d showed up my parents: that what I’d said about them had resulted in a picture of lives that were less eventful and satisfying than the Wildings’. Maybe I gave that impression from the things I didn’t say. Should I have done a better job of representing them at the Wildings’? I’d only been trying to please Mum who’d wanted to stay away.
It was heartening to realize that despite her professional background, Zita didn’t have a lot on Mum when it came to cooking, although I decided it wouldn’t be wise to say even that. The beef bourguignon Zita cooked was a favourite of Daniel’s, I later discovered, and that Saturday, Mum had prepared the chicken risotto that I loved.
I was relieved when the space the Wildings occupied in my head was quickly filled by my family. We talked about our jobs and Mum showed me some works-in-progress in her sewing room. I decided that if she’d been given the chance there was probably a lot she would have been able to contribute to the conversation in Cambridge.
Thinking back to my Meade Park days, perhaps I’d been guilty of avoiding Mum’s words and gestures of concern, even inventing their absence. I always had money for a taxi, of which there were plenty round the back of the John Barnes Waitrose, if the C11 was running late or I had an especially large load of books to cart home. Often, especially on dark or wet afternoons, Dad would be waiting in the car in Broadhurst Gardens. I’d do my assignments in the school library and catch the train to coincide with him leaving work. He never minded waiting if my journey was delayed. All in all, there was nothing our parents wouldn’t have done for Jo or me.
*
At teatime, I went back to Queens Park. There was another loss I had to face.
I’d known for a while that my days in Nadia’s flat were numbered, though looking back, I don’t think the awkwardness was a patch on what it might eventually be like where I’m living now. They’ve started leaving notes for me, instead of speaking. I’m not suggesting they’re deliberately avoiding me. We all have different routines, of course, but I would have thought the flat was big enough not to feel that anyone was getting in your way.
Back to Nadia, though. She owned the flat jointly with a half-sister we never saw. We’d met doing the same summer job in between my first and second years at university. We’d lost touch, until I bumped into her one early summer’s evening at the National Film Theatre and we went for a drink. Without realizing each other was in the audience, we’d both sat through an Italian film with sub-titles. I’d gone with Laura from the office but she’d had to scoot off immediately afterwards to pay the babysitter. My only plan was to wander along the South Bank to Blackfriars and then home. Nadia, who’d come alone, wanted to stay and talk about the film. It hadn’t really grabbed me, but I was able to pass on Laura’s assessment, and that fuelled a conversation in the bar for over half an hour.
Nadia and I stayed in touch. I’d been lodging with Sunita, a divorced woman in her late fifties. I’d been there for six years – it was my second spell as a long-term lodger since leaving home – and it suited us both. Then Sunita met a new partner and I was made to feel surplus to requirements, and obliged to move on. By chance, soon Nadia was casting about for a flatmate, and so we agreed that I would move in.
All Nadia and I had to go on were swift impressions of each other and a conversation about a film I would never have chosen to see, but it worked well. That is, until a friend of the absent sister’s turned up and commandeered the lounge for a bedroom. She was younger than us, and although not a student, behaved like one. She was careless with the flat’s security: leaving doors unlocked, leaving appliances on when she went out. She played loud music until early in the morning. I’m surprised that the neighbours didn’t complain. If only they had, it would have spared me from doing so and my friendship with Nadia wouldn’t have suffered.
Nadia made it clear that there was no question of the cousin leaving. Why was Nadia so in thrall to her sister that she could tolerate this impossible young girl, at my expense? She implied that if I wasn’t happy with the arrangement – by now it was May, the six-week stay had already overrun – that I should look for an alternative, and so I told her I’d go when my next six months was up in November. The deadline was looming and soon I’d need to do something about it.
In the meantime, I was surprised to hear from Mum the next day, because we’d caught up on all our news. ‘Now, Sam, love,’ she began, ‘I hope you won’t mind – in fact I’m sure you won’t—’ There was hesitation in her voice.
‘Go on, Mum,’ I said as encouragingly as I could, but with a degree of trepidation.
‘Well, you remember saying how things can get a little stressful at Nadia’s place?’
‘Only now and then.’ I didn’t want to worry her. I hadn’t even told them about my imminent departure. I thought it would be best to wait until I’d actually moved.
Mum was undaunted. ‘Well, it got us thinking. Both your dad and me. And here’s what we thought: there you are, stuck in that horrible, crowded flat ...’
Was she going to suggest I move back? Jo and I hadn’t lived at home for years, but we’d kept our old bedrooms, as if our parents were secretly longing for us all to be together again. Mum’s sewing ‘room’ was a hunched space in the laundry extension. I still had some old books and clothes, and Jo had put loads of stuff in the loft when she’d moved to Adam’s. At least it was the house we’d grown up in, I realized. Cambridge was possibly Zita and Roger’s exclusively. How much at home did Adam and Daniel feel? I felt a little thrill of satisfaction, as if I wasn’t so far behind the Wildings after all.
I almost missed my mum’s announcement. In fact, I repeated it, to be sure. ‘You think I should move into Jo and Adam’s flat while they’re away?’ Why was I instantly suspicious, instead of moved by kindness?
‘Absolutely,’ said Mum. ‘It’s the perfect solution.’
‘Have you talked to Jo about it?’ I queried, because my sister had said nothing to me.
Mum sounded hesitant again. ‘Of course ... She said it was a terrific idea, Adam too. For one thing, it saves your father having to traipse all the way to Islington to check on the flat and it spares Daniel the trouble too. Apparently, Adam was a bit concerned at how reliable his big brother would prove to be.’
‘What about Roger and Zita. Are they happy with the idea?’ I couldn’t imagine Mum forging a direct line to the Wildings in any circumstance.
‘They think it’s grand. We all do. So how about it, Sam? What do you think?’
It was the most cheerful she’d sounded since Jo made her announcement about Australia. Wouldn’t it have been cruel for me to reject it outright? Churlish, too. I admit, I was flattered to be singled out for attention. My suspicion faded.
Jo was entrusting me with the task of keeping life going in her absence. I would check the post and deal with any problems that might arise to do with bills and other payments. Everything would be in perfect working order on her return. For she would be coming back. It wasn’t as if I would be taking her place. I could never do that – besides, if I became Jo who would be me?
The plan, as Mum suggested it – endorsed by Jo – was flawless. I wished I’d been to the flat, but Jo had shown me photos. I was familiar with that kind of development from flicking through the architecture magazines we got at work. Michael had declared an interest in seeing the apartment, which pleased me. Mum, Dad and I went to look at it after work the next evening. I looked at their expectant, happy faces. I considered Nadia, but Jo was uppermost in my mind. I was doing it for her, and our parents, not for Nadia, not for myself. I’m convinced I had no other ambitions when I said yes.
*
My new address was a converted warehouse at the bottom of a street that ran from City Road to the bank of the Regents Canal. Opposite was a large housing estate owned by the Corporation of London with a park next to it, and working factories alongside. You could cut across the park up to Islington, or else you had to walk back down the street, almost to City Road and loop around, crossing the canal via a bridge. Houseboats were moored at the back, concealed by sweeping boughs of willow trees and, although some were aglow with lights, they looked rather desolate. Nobody appeared either to enter or leave them.
The flats seemed desolate too, and quiet, especially in contrast to the pub on the other side of the canal which was livelier, but unreachable. But I knew it was safe. Where I’d lived before, a man got stabbed at nine o’clock at night and a woman raped by a minicab driver. Danger felt nearby, even though I never took illegal taxis – I’d have never heard the end of it from Tom – and the man had been murdered in a park no one in their right mind would have ventured into after dark.
Jo explained at length in a long and funny e-mail that Adam had bought the third-floor, loft-style apartment two years earlier. He’d had his parents’ help and the proceeds of various prizes he’d won for photography and film-making in his late teens. I’d heard some of this in Cambridge. She explained which neighbours she and Adam knew and would be friendly and described those who were possibly to be avoided. I was particularly alarmed by the prospect of next-door’s middle-aged couple with five grown-up children who had sold the large family home when the last had left for university. ‘Savage or what!’ Jo had written. ‘We don’t speak to them if we can help it. I think she’s a witch.’
There seemed no point delaying. Adam and Jo weren’t expecting any money from me. ‘You can chip in with the bills, if you like – we’ll sort it out when we’re back,’ said Jo. I’d paid Nadia up till the end of October, so she had no objection to the suddenness of it all. Tom would be working the following weekend, so I saw him on Wednesday night, and I devoted Thursday and Friday evenings to packing. Dad arranged to borrow a mate-from-work’s van and on Saturday I moved in.
After we’d dumped my bags and gone up to Islington for some dinner, I came back to the flat and sat on the smart, black-leather-and-chrome sofa that was covered with bright scatter cushions – surely Jo’s influence on Adam’s stark, minimalist furnishings. I admired her clothes, her plants and books, too, and felt comforted. I doubted I would sleep easily that night, I did and woke on Sunday to sunlight streaming in through the large bedroom windows, and shortly after that a dozen or so geese descended on the canal bank, squawking loudly.
On that first morning I unpacked properly. I hoped there’d be some room in Jo’s chest of drawers and when I opened them there was. But as I pushed the clothes in, my fingers hit something hard. A stack of diaries, bundles of Filofax pages bundled together with elastic bands, wedged at the back. I felt as if I’d been caught doing something terrible, without having so much as opened them. Why would I need to do that? Jo had nothing to hide. But it felt good to have them for safe-keeping.
By midday, I was totally installed, so I decided to explore my new surroundings. I got onto the opposite bank of the towpath and headed east, passing the flats which didn’t seem so marooned by day. People popped in and out of windows, leaning over to drape towels and blankets on balconies.
I followed the path with a vague idea of going as far as the next landmark that I recognized. I’d taken with me a mini-A-Z, but the canal seemed its own system that had nothing to do with the streets surrounding it. It seemed more like the Metropolitan line route I’d taken to school – with big stretches of nothingness; the backs of disused, neglected warehouses, private estates screened off by fences and stands of trees. Some stretches of water between the locks were completely calm, not even disrupted by birds. But there were lots of nice new buildings and conversions, like Adam’s block.
I couldn’t have lost my bearings, because at each bridge was a sign pointing out where we were and which was the next in the sequence. It was like one of those painted thermometers you see outside schools and churches where they’re raising funds to a target. There were other signals, like warnings about the live cables under the slabs, and graffiti sprayed on walls or set into concrete. There were people to ask, although it wasn’t a chatty route. Parents with strollers talked quietly, though not as loudly as the joggers who were battling against iPod emissions. The cyclists were quiet until their bells shrieked as they approached tight tunnels. The fisherman were quietest of all. Nobody noticed me.
I wasn’t frightened. I knew it would be different in the dark, or even an hour or two later on this autumn afternoon, with shadows and unidentifiable noises, or when there was mist and the slippery patches of moss were impossible to see. Shadows could swallow up the bridge approaches. Someone could be hiding in an abandoned boat. An attacker lying in wait. There seemed an infinite number of possible dangers. I’d read articles about them.
At last I came to the back of Victoria Park, and all unnerving thoughts vanished. A signpost explained that I’d walked two-and-a-quarter miles and that the Limehouse Basin was as far again if I kept going east. That was an area I’d explored with Tom by road, but I was pretty sure he wouldn’t know the canals. It was something we could share. I dipped into the park, and wondered if I could coax him to picnic there next summer. The bit I saw was full of people walking dogs, but there was a whole other half which seemed more conducive to lazing on the grass. I’d investigate, and walk further on, another day.
I left the park by the second bridge I came to, and wandered down the Old Ford Road, for Bethnal Green tube. There was a cafe at the top of the road where I stopped for a cup of tea and slice of carrot cake at a table I shared with a pair of tourists. Further on, I saw the Museum of Childhood, which Laura at work had mentioned once before. It was the most elegant building, and I wondered if Michael knew about its history. I’d ask him, for sure. It felt like an extra reward on top of my new knowledge of the area and I felt so pleased.
Maybe exploring London on foot could be my new hobby. I could buy maps and a bigger street atlas. I could stop going to my dreary exercise class, where no one ever talked to me. Happy and tired, in a satisfying way, I got the tube home and stocked up on food at the little Tesco at Angel station. The day’s warmth had thinned and it was good to be indoors. I watched TV for the rest of the evening. I didn’t think of Adam and Jo, no one, really. And I slept soundly, as before.
*
When I decided to tell this story, my first idea was a series of family trees, laid out like a technical drawing. Working for an architect would, you’d think, provide a sound background for such a task. But Michael is the first to admit that his approaches to new commissions are inconsistent. He once told me, ‘Sam, I’ve dreamed up brand-new structures on the backs of envelopes, on serviettes, even.’ Usually, he has a shell plan over which to lay his translucent drawing paper. That way, he’ll know the boundaries to work within.
I tried it. It’s quite normal for me to lock up the office, so after everyone else had left, I sat down with an A3 pad and a 0.5 mm mechanical pencil and stared long and hard at the clean, blank page. Michael begins by sketching freehand, worrying about straight lines and angles later, when he transfers to the Mac. So that’s what I did, making several attempts.
I set obvious people side by side, then fitted others in around them to show where they crossed over. Then I’d realize someone important was on the far side, totally unreachable, despite the essential connection. I’d start again. But whatever I thought in my head would work looked a mess on paper. The named were just words, not people. The lines were a mad, messy version of the Underground map, which is someone else’s design and has nothing to do with me.
I ran into trouble the moment I put our family next to the Wildings. I’d be close to Daniel, which I liked, but it might be considered bad taste to put Jo beside Adam. Placing us next to Tom and Eric would have seemed like a step backwards. I worried that I hadn’t allocated any room for Abby and her family. At the same time, I’d wanted to keep Michael and Patrick out, because they should never have got involved. But like everyone else a line ran from them to Ruth – who comes into it soon – so they had to stay.
What I like about Michael’s appearance in this version is that it shows that basically I am a loyal, stable person. Apart from Tom and my family, I’ve known my boss longer than anyone else, and to this day have more to do with him than with any of those people.
At work, I’ve never angled for special treatment. I’m both necessarily supportive and appropriately detached. But I can’t help people noticing that my relationship with Michael is unique. When new contractors start – or more often when new clients came in – they can be wary of me. Laura, the only other woman on the team, explained it once: ‘You’ve been here longer than anyone else.’ She hesitated, and added, ‘Well, it isn’t just that. You and Michael make such a good pair. Sometimes it seems like we’re intruding.’ She laughed. ‘I think if I didn’t know about Patrick, I’d wonder …’ I made myself blush and laugh in response. But nobody knows of my reaction to first meeting Michael. If I’ve ever crossed a line it’s been in my mind only.
It sometimes feels like Michael is more dependent on me than I am on him. He says that I’m the backbone of our set-up, which isn’t a description I’d apply to myself. It’s me who undertakes the tedious training session when the latest model photocopier arrives on contract. I’m also the one who does the photocopying, and removes the paper jams and gets covered in ink when the toner needs changing. In addition to my office manager tasks, Michael entrusts me with compiling our all-important tender documents: the packages of information that aimed to convince potential clients that we could create the shop or gallery space they needed. And I do all the book-keeping, with Michael only glancing at my figures at each week’s end.
There are plenty of perks. I know almost as much about the architectural process as if I’d completed my degree. Michael sometimes sounds a bit wistful about that, as if he wishes I had. But in virtually the same breath he tells me he’d be lost if I left to resume my studies. ‘Sam, we depend on you utterly. You can never leave! Isn’t that right, guys?’ he added, corralling support from the rest of the team of three full-time architects: one a design whiz, the others specialists in technical and financial detail.
Everyone works so hard that I don’t mind going beyond the call of duty, even though they’re much better paid than me. And Michael is as generous a host as he is an employer. He and Patrick have a lovely house and I’ve been there often for parties. I don’t mind when work spills over into my recreational time. Michael always gets the mix exactly right and in doing so, has helped me to do the same.
But after Jo went to Australia, my attachment to Michael began to loosen. Unusually for me, I wasn’t aware of it happening. I certainly never made a conscious decision to ignore Michael in favour of anyone else, like Daniel, for instance. People might argue that there wasn’t any need since I was about to give Tom the push. That assumes it was a romantic connection that had to be dissolved, but I think that might have faded years before, without me noticing.
I’m aware that sometimes I come across as pretty clueless. In my defence, for nearly the whole of my life, I had been distracted by people whose intentions were more convincingly devised than my own, and more ruthlessly pursued. They prescribed my own agenda, and so you could say that that’s what I was doing when I pulled away from Michael. Namely, looking after Mum and Dad and keeping Jo’s London life ticking over. If that doesn’t sound like too much of an excuse. Did they need looking after? Jo had said so; it must be true. I think it’s the last thing they needed. The last thing they wanted, for sure. And not anything they wanted from me.
I can see that I spent too much time thinking privately about Jo – and not always kindly – when I ought to have considered our parents. At the time, I decided that they were too busy worrying about Jo to fret about me, and that probably they were glad to have me off their hands. But there’s another way of looking at it. Just because Jo wasn’t my enemy or rival did not mean that I didn’t have one. Already, my impression of being pushed away had taken root.
I know it makes no sense to feel sidelined when I’d been placed in Jo’s home, the epicentre of our world. Now I can see that being in the middle puts you at a disadvantage. You see more from outside. Plus, there might be many routes of escape but from the middle the choice is too great, and the distance to freedom too far.
In other words: I pursued my suspicions, because it’s what I do in times of doubt. But I’d picked the wrong ones. I had begun exploring my new environment, the ins and outs of Islington, so it would seem familiar and benign. I just hadn’t queried the motives of the people who had put me there.
Normally, home was home and work was work. They rarely overlapped, and I prided myself on keeping the division. But last year, there was too much ‘home’ in my life. Maybe that’s ironic, considering that the most important member of our family was on the other side of the world. Or perhaps it isn’t. One thing I am sure of is this: that however – or whenever – my feelings for Michael began to change, it was not with the aim of creating space to start an obsession with Maureen Farmer. I didn’t bring her into my story, or my life.
Maureen Farmer was responsible for Michael’s sudden withdrawal. His own disappearing act, you could say. Over the coming days, I discovered that my colleagues had been finding him uncooperative and uncommunicative. He was delaying his response to e-mails, or just not answering them at all. He had cancelled one-to-one meetings. He’d forgotten to convey important information. He’d made decisions without consultation. The frustration was summarised: ‘For fuck’s sake, we’re a small office, a small team. It doesn’t require much effort to keep people in the loop.’
Looking back, it seemed to take a long time for a diagnosis to be made, and for the expression ‘The Farmer Project’ to catch on. Could I have helped speed things up if I’d been paying attention? As a title it didn’t appeal to me one bit. ‘The Farmer Project’ sounded too innocuous to capture the level of stress and anxiety that flooded the office. Later, it sounded too detached, as if there wasn’t a real person involved. Ultimately, it was a poor way of describing what I came to realize was an act of pure genius.
How else could you describe leaving a life behind to start up another? All it took was a change of name, a new set of circumstances. In a city the size of London you don’t need to move so very far from where you’d begun. It was a million times more effective than staged invisibility, more practical than dividing yourself into halves with drugs like my university boyfriend, than living half in and half out of existence like I was to accuse Tom of doing, either saying too much or not enough. Far and away much easier than having to completely disappear off the face of the earth.
When I realized what Maureen Farmer had achieved – who she really was – I longed to let her know of my approval. I imagined we’d meet, just the two of us. We would be face to face, and I could show my admiration for her – go beyond that, even, to emulate her. It wasn’t the kind of behaviour I’d ever indulge in through all my years at Michael Coady Associates, but I wanted it more than anything.
‘You really are crazy, Sam.’
‘Deluded.’
I don’t think so. Admittedly, I hadn’t thought that disappearance was anything to celebrate in Jo’s case, or Abby’s for that matter. You could accuse me of applying double standards again, but not every situation is the same and needs to be treated as if it was. In Abby’s case, it was spite which forced me to tell her the truth about Tom. If I was overly brutal towards Jo at the end, it was because I wanted to remind her that she couldn’t just step back into her world as if nothing had happened and nobody had moved on. A gentle warning, like I always used to offer. It isn’t my fault that the facts sounded anything but gentle. But there’s only one respect in which I regret telling Jo about the murder. Not to spare her the guilt which, as I’ve said, will pass, but because I really wish I’d told Daniel first. Like Jo, I knew he’d find out anyway, but I wanted him to hear it from me. Trust Jo to come off worse, I can hear people think. But Jo really had nothing to do with it. I can’t stress that often enough.
If anyone wants to accuse me of being truly deluded, then they’ll say that when I discovered who Maureen Farmer really was I should have dropped my fantasy identity for her and gone straight to the person who needed me most. Tom, of course. And when I learned of her connection to Daniel, I should have put aside all thoughts of strange coincidences and talked to him, too. Offered him a warning of some kind or other. I could have helped Michael, too, but because I didn’t care as much about him as I once had, I did nothing to protect him. He had the least to lose, the least to fear, but I should have helped.
But for a while, at least, I wanted Maureen Farmer just to be for me. Too long, perhaps.
*
There was trouble ahead, but I wasn’t worried. Maybe that’s not so surprising, because even in times of stress it’s a quality of life at Michael Coady Associates that no one fronts up of a morning in a bad mood dreading the working day ahead. Domestic crises, travel delays; everyone came equipped with them, but the office is a sanctuary of practical efficiency. I was even more keen than usual to get to work that Monday morning, the second of October.
The bus route from the Angel down Rosebery Avenue looked sluggish and congested, so I decided on getting the Northern line to King’s Cross where I changed on to the Victoria for Oxford Circus. I walked the rest of the way. I was first to arrive, so unlocked and put the coffee on, and waited till my colleagues meandered in.
I was more expansive than usual in describing my weekend. It seemed sensible to advertise my presence in the new flat. Plus, everyone asked about after Jo, so it was lucky that I had quite a lot to say. She was a constant presence in e-mails and phone calls. You can still find edited highlights from various web pages with links to the sites of local bands that Jo had discovered, and galleries of Adam’s photographs. We didn’t have to rely solely on public postings. Jo phoned Mum and Dad twice a week and, once I’d moved in, called me at work to check that everything was OK in the flat. I reassured her quickly and demanded to be filled in on her news.
‘Adam wouldn’t mind spending the whole weekend lazing on the beach,’ Jo laughed. ‘But if we leave the office at five or even half past we can be in the water within thirty minutes. It means an eight o’clock start, but it’s absolutely worth it. Everyone does it.’
She wrote: ‘It’s the Labour Day holiday coming up. We’re going to hire a car and do some sightseeing. I’ll send you the link.’ Which she did, to some place called the Mungo National Park and a host of other varied locations planned for future weekends, including mountain ranges, vineyards, surfing beaches, rainforests, even a tropical island with coral reefs and lagoons where everyone cycles and there’s no mobile phone reception, just a two hour flight away.
Everything delighted Jo and fed her natural craving for new experiences, piling pleasure on pleasure, accumulating achievements. I was pleased for her. But you know that feeling when you’re afraid of a certain outcome which never eventuates? You can’t believe why you ever worried and you feel weirdly cheated. I had that feeling, which was crazy, since I’d hoped that my fears would turn out to be unwarranted. Then again, Jo wouldn’t be back till just before Christmas. Plenty of time for something to go wrong.
*
Returning home that night, I wondered what Jo and Adam had told the other residents about me. Would I be rumbled as an imposter? I’d rather nervously dashed past the porter in the morning when his back was turned, but he finished work at four so I didn’t need to worry about being confronted now. I went inside and made a cup of tea and, suddenly hungry, opened a tub of hummus and a packet of pita bread.
At seven o’clock there was a loud knock. It was the woman from next door, carrying a large white box. ‘I was in this morning when the post arrived, so Ian – you ought to meet him, he’s the porter – gave it to me for safekeeping.’ Dale, I remembered her name in time, and Jo’s warning. I thanked her and invited her in but she declined: ‘Gerry’s got the dinner on, it’s almost ready.’ We agreed that I would drop in on Thursday evening. I closed the door and took the box inside, intrigued but not yet excited.
Above my name and the address was the gold logo of a shop located in Marylebone High Street. Inside the box were a bottle of red wine and one of white, a box of Belgian chocolates and another of champagne truffles, and plastic boxes filled with nuts. It was an expensive selection, suitable for Mother’s Day or a birthday or Christmas and I felt a totally inappropriate recipient. The last thing to come out of the box was a card which read, Welcome, Samantha! Assumed the cupboards would probably be a bit bare. Enjoy – Daniel.
He knew I was here, of course he did, and the thought gave me sudden comfort. For a moment Mum’s girlish giggle came back to me – ‘I won’t tell Tom’ – but it didn’t trouble me. Then I remembered our sour parting at Cambridge station. I’d written to thank his parents, but would Daniel have felt excluded from my appreciation? Was this gift an apology because he thought he’d offended me? Now I felt remorseful and pressured with a sense of obligation. I’d have to get in touch – but not instantly, not yet. He’d understand that I’d need time to settle into my new surroundings.
I took the white wine, chilled since morning, round to my new neighbours’ on Thursday night. Clearly it was an excellent bottle: ‘Almost too good to drink,’ Gerry joked, opening it. Their flat was the mirror image of next-door, although kitted out very differently. The Hutchences’ furniture stood tall and rigid: six high-backed dining chairs around a highly polished table, and a nest of tables and a sideboard, all hard-edged, all cramped. Everything had come from their former home, I supposed, and looked very out of place. It reminded me of a cemetery full of well-tended headstones.
Gerry was in advertising, though semi-retired, and Dale was a primary-school head teacher. They asked if I was house-sitting on my own and I hesitated before saying yes. I don’t know why I didn’t think to mention that Tom was sure to be around from time to time. They were friendly enough, but I could see why Jo was spooked. I wasn’t entirely sure if I liked them. They repeated the story about selling the family home with a kind of ghoulish glee. ‘What happens when your children want to come and stay?’ I asked and they looked at each other as if the thought had never occurred to them. ‘They’ve got their own lives,’ Gerry said flatly. It was strange to hear them speak so glowingly of Adam and Jo, as if the four of them were the closest of friends. Strange, that this quiet, severe and much older pair would pursue a one-sided allegiance to this young couple, yet appear disinterested in their own children. I was glad when the evening was over, but reassured.
Back in Jo and Adam’s flat I realized that two people we hadn’t discussed were Mum and Dad, and that made me realize that I hadn’t heard from since they’d helped me move. I thought Mum would be especially attentive this week with my change in circumstances. Perhaps she thought she’d done enough. Did she think I was being ungrateful? I’d thanked them for their help but not, I realized, for arranging the opportunity. Then again, I couldn’t be sure if I’d thanked Jo, specifically. Or did she agree with Mum and Dad that I was doing her a favour by staying in the flat?
I hadn’t forgotten that the ‘favour’ had emerged only after she’d gone and it had been Mum and Dad’s idea. Jo would never have neglected her duties back home, but wouldn’t it have been difficult to organize life from half a world away, where she was busy creating new routines and connections? Supposing she really had approved of the plan. All of a sudden I was doubtful. I had no idea what pressure our parents applied in their act of persuasion. I doubt that Jo would have contested them for long. But I’m pretty sure I wondered, did Jo really want me to be so physically immersed in her life? What was Mum and Dad’s goal? The questions flitted in and out of my head, but it wasn’t the moment to ask them. It never will be, either. As I said at the start, there are some things you can’t ever know.
*
Michael must have decided I seemed uneasy that Friday morning. The first I knew of it was finding him standing behind me in the kitchen, just after half-past ten. He hadn’t asked me for a drink, nor had he set about making his own.
He said, his voice full of tender concern, ‘Sam, are you OK? You seem subdued.’ My look of surprise must have forced his defence. ‘It’s just that this last week you’ve been – well, noisier than usual.’ He grinned. ‘Sorry – not a good word but I can’t think of a better one.’
I tried to make light of it. ‘I hope I haven’t been a disruptive influence.’
‘No, no, no. You’re normally quiet, but I’ve noticed you talking a lot more this week. It’s not a bad thing by any means. I like it.’
‘Well, there’s been more to say, I guess, with Jo in Australia and me moving in.’
‘Exactly. We’re all fascinated. It’s just a shame you’ll only be there till Christmas. Hardly time to have a housewarming.’
I hadn’t thought of that. Maybe a party was a good idea. I could invite everyone at the office, some of my radio fiends, maybe even Nadia would come. But I found myself agreeing: ‘I suppose not. Pity it’s nearly autumn, too. The flat would be a lovely place in the summer with the big glass doors opening on to the balcony.’
‘There you are, chatty again.’ He smiled. ‘So what about today? Is something bothering you, Sam? Something we’ve done?’
I remembered my old allegiance, as if it were no longer part of me. I rushed in to reassure Michael. ‘Not at all. Everything’s fine. I promise.’
‘Well, if you’re certain.’ He shrugged. The interrogation was over.
I suggested we look at next week’s diary. Michael seemed cagey about a few of the appointments he had lined up. I made a mental note to find out more. It would be useful to have information if I needed to defend him to the others.

 

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